Josef Albers did wonderful work in his exploration of how we see color. His work can be explored in his book Interaction of Color. In this book he introduces discoveries of the changeable and evanescent nature of our perception and experience of color. Many of our ideas build on his approach.
Notice in this woodblock print Matt made: the color of the x's are the same. They appear different because of the differing adjacent colors .
In his book Interaction of Color, at the start of his chapter “The Relativity of Color”, Josef Albers describes a simple experiment using touch to experience relative water temperatures. He sets up three pots of water of three temperatures: warm, lukewarm, and cold. He asks that you put your two hands in the two outer pots, warm and cold, and after a period of time take those two hands and place them together in the pot of lukewarm water. He points out the temperature sensations in your two hands will not be the same. The hand that had been in cold water will feel warm, the one that had been in warm water will feel cold. Albers uses the water example as an analogy describing the relative nature of our visual experience of color. He writes:
“In the same way as haptic sensations deceive us, so optical illusions deceive.”
Ming and I also see sensory experiences of our world are inescapably relative, and we believe using an energy yardstick in assessing sensory relationships can be helpful. We see Albers’ water experiment as a hint towards our idea that sensory experiences of our world are fundamentally related to energy assessments. The varied temperatures of those pots of water reflect energy levels of differing degrees. We believe our experience of visual relationships are also perceptions of relative energy relationships. The light of blue light carries a different frequency and consequent energy levels than red light. When our forever-ago ancient ancestors first developed specialized cell structures that eventually evolved to eyes, they were pursuing the ability to interact with a very basic energy aspect of our world: the perception of light energy. Light of varied colors we see an expression of energy differences in our world. We postulate that as things progressed, eyes were evolving to ascertain energy differences. Along with the perception of luminence (darks and lights), we think of the perception of color as an evolutionary adaptation that helps to organize the visual world. Our idea is that to see this perception as connected and shaped by energy relationships, not unlike our perception of the water of varying temperatures in the Albers’ experiment described above, is helpful, useful, and, above all, interesting.
If you can manage to maintain your focus you will notice the colors begin to disappear. If you concentrate you can make the entire field go to white and will see no color.
The instant you move your eyes or blink, the colors will instantly re-appear.
This is a very graphic demonstration of our theory at work. Small, very rapid eye movements are what stimulate our optic nerves, especially the cone cells that are involved in color perception. Without eye movements we will see no color.
About this effect Ming has written
"Neural adaptation is a decrease over time in the responsiveness of the sensory system to a constant stimulus. For example, when you put on a hat, the hat is immediately felt by your head. Later, however, the sensation of the hat on your head diminishes, you might sometimes almost forget that you are wearing a hat. In the visual domain, neural adaptation leads to visual aftereffects. For example, immediately after you stare at a waterfall for a while, looking at a still object would make you feel the object moves upward. Neural adaptation also leads to the Troxler fading above."
Matt adds "It is an idea of our theory that it is the active nature of visual perception, the fact that our eyes are continually moving and assessing visual relationships (light of differing wavelengths, for instance), that creates our sensation of color. We see color relationships as a measure of energy differences, and believe it is relevant and useful to think of visual perception as a process of assessing energy relationships in our world. This is especially true of our experience of color."
The Gelb effect demonstrates that our perception of dark/light relationships are also relative, just as are our perception of colors. You can get an interactive sense of this by following this interactive link.
Color Constancy describes how our brains input relational information, especially clues related to light and light sources, in our assessment of color relationships. In the above example the squares with the arrows appear very different in their color hue . . .
but actually they are the same color!
This is an example drawn from Albers' Interaction of Color.
If you fixate on the black dot in the image on the left for 10 seconds or so, and then move your gaze to the black dot on the right, you will experience an after image that is a complement in color sensation to the image on the left.
We have more to work out in our assessment of sensory fading, but currently we postulate that a view of our visual senses as primarily involved in assessing energy relationships would explain that our eyes will "make up for" and "compensate for" visual stimuli, especially the energy relationships of visual stimuli, in the same way that our tactile senses are shaped by sensations of warm or cold in Albers' example of the three pots of water described at the top of this page.
Do you remember this image going viral on the internet some years back?
Some saw the dress as blue with gold bands and some saw it as white with black bands. Once you joined one or the other of the two camps it seemed very difficult to imagine how folks could see it otherwise.
Ming has explained an explanation of the difference in how we see the colors in this photo can be found in color constancy. Our brains have made differing assumptions about the light source, assumptions our conscious minds are not aware of.
It turns out whether we see the dress is blue or white is directed by whether we see the dress as backlit or in direct light. These assumptions have to do with subtle cues in the photo that are ambiguous. Our brains make this determination without telling us we have made this choice. To find out more you'll need to participate in one or more of our talks, or buy our book, when it comes out!