Have you ever tried to match up a colour from memory and failed? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Recent research has shown that while our brains are able to distinguish between literally millions of colours, it finds it much more difficult to remember specific shades.
For example, most of us can easily tell the difference between emerald green, sea green, forest green or lime green, but when it comes to remembering the exact shade we have a tendency to just label them all as just green. This could explain why we find it so hard to match colours based on memory alone.
The study, which was carried out by Jonathan Flombaum, at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, used four different experiments on four different groups of people. Experiment one involved the research subjects looking at a colour wheel made up of 180 different shades. They were asked to find the most appropriate name for each colour. This was to discover the perceived boundaries between colours. During the second experiment, a different group was shown the same colour wheel, but this time they were asked to find the best example of a particular colour.
For the third experiment, the participants were shown coloured squares and asked to find the best match on the colour wheel; during the fourth experiment, the fourth group of participants were given the same task, but this time there was a 90 millisecond delay between seeing the coloured square and the colour wheel.
The results of these tests showed that putting colours into categories has a big impact on how we identify and remember colours. When asked to name colours, all participants could see blue, yellow, pink, purple and green, while some ambiguous colours, such as those that sit on the boundary of green and blue, were classed as either blue or green.
Perhaps the most telling result was how the groups involved in experiments three and four remembered the colours they’d seen. While the researchers predicted that the results would follow a bell curve centred on the correct colour, the responses were skewed towards the best example of the colour rather than the true colour, suggesting that we tend to remember colour in line with our expectation of that colour.
This seems to imply that in addition to remembering a continuum of shades we also remember colours as discrete categories, using a combination of the two to produce a memory.