Color vision
Though the exact status of color is a matter of current philosophical dispute, color is arguably a psychophysical phenomenon that exists only in our minds. (See Qualia, for some of that dispute.) A "red" apple does not give off "red light", and it is misleading to think of things that we see, or of light itself, as objectively colored at all. Rather, the apple simply absorbs light of various wavelengths shining on it to different degrees, in such a way that the unabsorbed light which it reflects is perceived as red. An apple is perceived to be red only because normal human color vision perceives light with different mixes of wavelengths differently—and we have language to describe that difference.

In 1931, an international group of experts called the Commission Internationale d'Eclairage (CIE) developed a mathematical color model. The premise used by the CIE is that color is the combination of three things: a light source, an object, and an observer. The CIE tightly controlled each of these variables in an experiment that produced the measurements for the system.

Although Aristotle and other ancient scientists speculated on the nature of light and color vision, it was not until Newton that light was correctly identified as the source of the color sensation. Goethe studied the theory of colors, and in 1801 Thomas Young proposed his trichromatic theory which was later refined by Hermann von Helmholtz. That theory was confirmed in the 1960s.

Normalized typical human cone responses (and the rod response) to monochromatic spectral stimuliThe retina of the human eye contains three different types of color receptor cells, or cones. One type, relatively distinct from the other two, is most responsive to light that we perceive as violet, with wavelengths around 420 nm (cones of this type are sometimes called short-wavelength cones, S cones, or, most commonly but quite misleadingly, blue cones). The other two types are closely related genetically, and in chemistry and response, and each type is most responsive to light that we perceive as green or greenish. One of these types (sometimes called long-wavelength cones, L cones, or, misleadingly, red cones) is most sensitive to light we perceive as yellowish-green, with wavelengths around 564 nm; the other type (sometimes called middle-wavelength cones, M cones, or green cones) is most sensitive to light perceived as green, with wavelengths around 534 nm. The term "red cones" for the long-wavelength cones is deprecated as this type is actually maximally responsive to light we perceive as greenish, albeit longer wavelength light than that which maximally excites the mid-wavelength/"green" cones.

The sensitivity curves of the cones are roughly bell-shaped, and overlap considerably. The incoming signal spectrum is thus reduced by the eye to three values, sometimes called tristimulus values, representing the intensity of the response of each of the cone types.

Because of the overlap between the sensitivity ranges, some combinations of responses in the three types of cone are impossible no matter what light stimulation is used. For example, it is not possible to stimulate only the mid-wavelength/"green" cones: the other cones must be stimulated to some degree at the same time, even if light of some single wavelength is used (including that to which the target cones are maximally sensitive). The set of all possible tristimulus values determines the human color space. It has been estimated that humans can distinguish roughly 10 million different colors, although the identification of a specific color is highly subjective, since even the two eyes of a single individual perceive colors slightly differently.

The rod system (which vision in very low light relies on exclusively) does not by itself sense differences in wavelength; therefore it is not normally implicated in color vision. But experiments have conclusively shown that in certain marginal conditions a combination of rod stimulation and cone stimulation can result in color discriminations not based on the mechanisms.

While the mechanisms of color vision at the level of the cones in the retina are well described in terms of tristimulus values, color processing and perception above that base level are organized differently. A dominant theory of the higher neural mechanisms of color vision proposes three opponent processes, or opponent channels, constructed out of the raw input from the cones: a red-green channel, a blue-yellow channel, and a black-white ("luminance") channel. This theory does something to account for the structure of our subjective color experience (see discussion below). Blue and yellow are considered complementary colors, or opposites: you could not experience a bluish yellow (or a greenish red), any more than you could experience a dark brightness or a hot coldness. The four "polar" colors proposed as extremes in the two opponent processes other than black-white have some natural claim to being called primary colors. This is in competition with various sets of three primary colors proposed as "generators" of all normal human color experience.

Clinical issues
If one or more types of a person's color-sensing cones are missing or less responsive than normal to incoming light, that person has a smaller or skewed color space and is said to be color deficient. Another term frequently used is color blind, although this can be misleading; only a small fraction of color deficient individuals actually see completely in black and white, and most simply have anomalous color perception. Some kinds of color deficiency are caused by anomalies in the number or nature of cones of the various types, as just described. Others (like central or cortical achromatopsia) are caused by neural anomalies in those parts of the brain where visual processing takes place.

Some animals may have more than three different types of color receptor (most marsupials, birds, reptiles, and fish; see tetrachromat, below) or fewer (most mammals; these are called dichromats and monochromats).

An unusual and elusive neurological condition sometimes affecting color perception is synaesthesia.

A normal human is a trichromat (from Greek: tri=three, chroma=color). In theory it may be possible for a person to have four, rather than three, distinct types of cone cell. If these four types are sufficiently distinct in spectral sensitivity and the neural processing of the input from the four types is developed, a person may be a tetrachromat (tetra=four). Such a person might have an extra and slightly different copy of either the medium- or long-wave cones. It is not clear that such people exist or that the human brain could actually process the information from such an extra cone type separately from the standard three. However, strong evidence suggests such people do exist, are all female by genetic imperative, and their brain gladly adapts to use the additional information. For many species, tetrachromacy is the normal case.

Color perception
There is an interesting phenomenon which occurs when an artist uses a limited color palette: the eye tends to compensate by seeing any grey or neutral color as the color which is missing from the color wheel. E.g.: in a limited palette consisting of red, yellow, black, and white, a mixture of yellow and black will appear as a variety of green, a mixture of red and black will appear as a variety of purple, and pure grey will appear bluish.

When the eye shifts attention after viewing a color for some time, then the complement of that color (the color opposite to it in the color wheel) is perceived by the eye for some time wherever it moves. This effect of color perception was utilised by Vincent van Gogh, a Post-Impressionist painter.

Effect of luminosity
Note that the color experience of a given light mixture may vary with absolute luminosity, because both rods and cones are active at once in the eye, with each having different color curves, and rods taking over gradually from cones as the brightness of the scene is reduced. This effect leads to a change in color rendition with absolute illumination levels that can be summarised in the "Kruithof curve".

Cultural influences
Different cultures have different terms for colors, and may also assign some color names to slightly different parts of the spectrum, or have a different color ontology: for instance, the Han character ? (pronounced qing in Mandarin and aoi in Japanese) has a meaning that covers both blue and green; blue and green are considered shades of ?.

Similarly, languages are selective when deciding which hues are split into different colours on the basis of how light or dark they are. Apart from the black-grey-white continuum, English splits one hue — red — into two colours according to lightness: red and pink. To English speakers, these two colours, which are objectively no more different that light green and dark green, appear to be totally different. An Italian will make the same red-pink distinction, but will also make a further distinction between blu and azzurro, which English speakers would simply call dark and light blue. To Italian speakers, blu and azzurro are as separate as red and pink.

Color terms evolve. It is argued that there are a limited number of universal "basic color terms" which begin to be used by individual cultures in a relatively fixed order. For example, a culture would start with only two terms, equivalent to black and white or dark and light, before adding subsequent colors closely in the order of red; green and yellow; blue; brown; and orange, pink, purple, and gray. Older arguments for this theory also stipulated that the acquisition and use of basic color terms further along the evolutionary order indicated a more complex culture with more highly developed technology.

A somewhat dated example of a universal color categories theory is Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969) by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. A more recent example of a linguistic determinism theory might be Is color categorisation universal? New evidence from a stone-age culture (1999) by Jules Davidoff et al. The idea of linguistically determined color categories is often used as evidence for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Language, Thought, and Reality (1956) by Benjamin Lee Whorf).

Additionally, different colors are often associated with different emotional states, values, or groups, but these associations can vary between cultures. In one system, red is considered to motivate action; orange and purple are related to spirituality; yellow cheers; green creates cosiness and warmth; blue relaxes; and white is associated with either purity or death. These associations are described more fully in the individual color pages, and under color psychology.


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