- The title of a recent post on Flighty’ s blog got me thinking about colour, how we perceive it and its importance to us as gardeners. So I have borrowed Flighty’s title for this post.
As gardeners we love colour and we all share the same names for the same colours but how can we ever know if we perceive colour the same way? We probably don’t.
Researchers have found that people vary in the number of colour sensitive cones in their retinas. Some people, usually men, are colour blind when it comes to green and brown shades. Other people have a heightened sensitivity to colour. They are called ‘‘tetrachromats’. Our colour sensitivity starts in photoreceptors in the back of the eyes. Most of us have three photoreceptors. They are responsible for enabling us to see red, green and blue. Tetrachromats have four photoreceptors which make them extra sensitive to colour. Birds, reptiles and insects are tetrachromatic too but they have an extra bonus in being able to see infra red and ultraviolet light. Bees can see markings on flowers which are invisible to us.
Photoreceptors in the eye don’ t tell us what colour something is though. They send messages to the optic nerve and then to the brain which sifts through the information and interprets the colour differences.
We can’ t see colour in the dark because colour is based on the reflection of light as Einstein discovered. Our perception of colour is the result of the way an object absorbs and reflects light.
I hope I have got this right; I am not a scientist and reading up about how we perceive colour has made my head spin. It occurs to me that the way we see colour could also be conditioned by the society we grow up in and the words available to describe colour. Our use of words make things our own and if we have no word to describe something are we aware of its existence? Language shapes how we see the world. Remember Homer’ s ‘wine- dark sea‘? The Aegean sea is blue. Homer constantly referred to it as ‘wine- dark’. I don’ t suppose wine in Ancient Greece was blue. So presumably the colour of the sea was perceived differently, perhaps because there was no word to describe the particular shade of blue. Homer also referred to the sky as bronze and honey as green. It seems the Greeks may have perceived colour differently.
If we all see flower colours differently this could explain why we like and dislike certain flowers. My recent post on taste in flowers got some interesting comments. Some people, me included, really dislike certain flowers and others love those very same flowers. I wonder if we perceive their colour differently? I can’ t think of any other explanation.
But on the other hand it could be that different colours affect our mood and emotions differently. Most of us love blue flowers and blue is generally thought to induce feelings of calm and tranquillity.
Reds and hot colours are said to be warm but they can also induce feelings of anger and hostility. Red stimulates the heart rate and makes you alert. And of course it is the colour of love.
Orange is a warm colour; it is supposed to make you feel good by triggering the release of the brain chemical, serotonin.
Yellow is the colour of sunshine and summer. It is the most luminous colour and the one the eye processes first.
Pink is supposed to be calming and prison cells in some parts of the the US have been painted pink to reduce prisoners’ aggression.
Green, the colour of the natural world, is said to relax us. Though whether this Echinacea ‘Green Jewel’ will relax some bloggers who I know dislike green flowers is debatable.
White suggests purity and innocence. This Lilium longiflorum does anyway. And it is easy from seed.
Purple means power and wealth and maybe passion?
Violet is supposed to be a spiritual colour. This all sounds a bit New Agey to me. Colour therapists tell you what colour clothes to wear and what colour to paint your walls but so far as I know they don’ t tell you what colour flowers to grow. I don’ t know how much scientific evidence there is for these ideas about colour affecting our moods but colour certainly defines our world and how we react to it. Anyway, it was an excuse to show you some of the things I have in flower at the moment.
When it comes to our perception of colour there are people who live in a world of colour that we can only imagine. They are synaesthetes; that is people whose neurological wiring causes them to experience different senses at the same time. Colour may trigger a sense of smell and sound or taste. Some of them see letters, numbers and words in colour. Or they experience colour as a sound or the other way round. This strange intermingling of the senses must create a psychedelic world which is hard to imagine. The artist, Wassily Kadinsky claimed to be able to see sound and hear colour. He wanted to paint symphonies.
Romantics of the nineteenth century thought that synaesthetes were in some way nearer to God because they had a deeper understanding of the unity of the Universe and how things connect. The idea that they are more spiritual than other people is no longer believed but it is possible that understanding how they perceive the world can tell us something about human consciousness. They show us that reality is not the same for everyone.
When I discovered the poems of the French decadent romantic poet Charles Baudelaire, as a student, I did not realise that he was a synaesthete. All the same I found his poem ‘Correspondances‘ hauntingly beautiful. It seemed to offer a new, visionary way of looking at the world.
La nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme une nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.
Il est des parfums frais comme de chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
—Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,
Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.
Nature is a Temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
In a deep and tenebrous unity;
Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day;
Perfumes, sounds and colours correspond.
There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children,
Sweet as oboes, green as meadows
-And others are corrupt, and rich, triumphant
With power to expand into infinity,
Like amber and incense, musk, benzoin
That sing the ecstasy of the soul and senses.