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Do we all see colors the same?

Do we all see colors the same?

Color perception is a fascinating and complex neurological process that has long interested scientists and philosophers alike. The way we perceive color stems from the intricate structures of our eyes combined with processing in our brains. This leads to an intriguing question – do we all see colors the same way or are there variations between people?

The science behind color vision

To understand if we see colors differently, we first need to explore some basics of how color vision works. Light enters our eyes and falls on the retina, which contains photoreceptor cells called rods and cones. The rods detect brightness while the cones detect color.

There are three types of cones, each containing a different photopigment that is most sensitive to either short (blue), medium (green), or long (red) wavelengths of light. Signals from the cones are processed by other cells in the retina and optic nerve before traveling to the visual cortex of the brain, where color is perceived.

So while wavelengths of light determine the potential color we see, it is ultimately our visual cortex that interprets these signals and gives rise to our subjective color experience. This allows for variations between people in how colors are perceived.

Individual differences in color vision

There are a few key ways that people can differ in their color perception:

  • Color blindness – Approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women are color blind, meaning they have trouble distinguishing certain colors, usually reds and greens.
  • Tetrachromacy – Some rare individuals, mostly women, have an extra cone type and may perceive up to 100 million more colors than the average trichromat.
  • Brain processing – Even among those with typical trichromatic vision, there may still be subtle differences in how the brain interprets color signals from the eyes.

Beyond physiology, other factors like language and culture can also shape our subjective experience of color. The ways that different languages categorize color provides insight into this.

The role of language in color perception

Studies of diverse languages show variations in color categorization that may influence perception. For example:

  • Some languages like Dani and Ioruba do not make a linguistic distinction between blue and green.
  • Ancient Greek texts described the sea as “wine-looking” rather than blue, lacking a distinct term.
  • Japanese has two words for blue – ao for lighter blues and mizuiro for darker blues.

Speakers of languages that draw more categorical distinctions for colors are quicker at discriminating between those colors. So even if our eyes detect differences similarly, language can change how our brain classifies those differences.

Experiments comparing color perception

Scientists have tested color perception using some clever experiments:

  • Color sorting – When people freely sort colored chips into groups, there is broad agreement across cultures about which chips are similar or dissimilar. This suggests we perceive colors consistently at a basic neurological level.
  • Color naming – Speakers of Berinmo, which has no term for blue, were slower at distinguishing blue from green compared to English speakers. But they could still tell the difference with additional training.
  • Memory colors – People are consistent across cultures in remembering “typical” colors like yellow bananas or red apples, indicating shared color perception.

So while language and other factors introduce some cultural differences, at a core visual level, humans generally perceive colors in the same way thanks to a shared neurological foundation.

Seeing through another’s eyes

We cannot directly experience how another person subjectively perceives color or know if red looks the same to you as it does to me. But science suggests that predictable differences like color blindness aside, most differences in color perception across individuals are subtle.

Given the biological consistency of the visual system across people, it is likely that our vivid subjective experience of color is more similar than it is different between people. Still, we may never know with philosophical certainty how similarly or differently we each see the world.


Research indicates humans share similar underlying neurological machinery that gives rise to our perception of color. While factors like language and culture introduce some differences, the vivid subjective experience of color perception is likely more similar than different across people. We can never fully know how another person perceives color. But evidence suggests our shared biology constrains color perception to a consistent human experience we all understand as red, blue, and green.

So in summary:

Evidence we see colors the same Evidence we see colors differently
Shared cone cells and visual cortex structure Color blindness differences
Consistent basic color categorization Linguistic differences in color terms
Consensus on memory colors Subtle individual variations in brain processing

While interesting differences exist, the human visual system is fundamentally structured the same. Through this shared biology, we are likely to perceive colors in a similar, but not identical, way.