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.
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.
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.
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.
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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