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Is Color in the Eye of the Beholder?

Author: Meenakshi Nair

The colors of Starry Night by Van Gogh. The night sky filled with chromatic blue swirls, a glowing yellow moon; the brilliant contrasts of blues and yellows. Each person holds unique experiences with this painting, from feeling therapeutic to passionate. But do we also see the painting differently? One may see a more vibrant blue while another may recognize a richer green. It can be difficult to understand that color, something universally accepted, is subjective to every individual.

Color is created by Electromagnetic Radiation - specifically visible light. Isaac Newton in the 1600s had demonstrated that white light (visible light) is composed of seven different colors so seven different wavelengths. Wavelengths are the distance between two successive crests: so the distance for all colors are different making them distinct. When visible light hits an object, it reflects some light and absorbs the rest. Light reflected back is at a wavelength in the visible light spectrum: the color of the object. But how do our brains help create our colored reality?

The cone cells behind our eyes turn the light information received into electrical impulses in our brains to shape our view; these cones are called photoreceptors. Most people have three different photoreceptors for light which are blue, green, and red, and they allow us to perceive the full range of colors.

As humans, we each have a particular sensitivity to color. "I think we can say for certain that people don't see the same colors," said Joseph Carroll, a color vision scientist at Medical College of Wisconsin.

Around 8% of people struggle with color blindness, where they lack one or more of their cone cells so their brains construct a different reality. Some even have a heightened sense of color: Scientists call these people 'Techromats', meaning ‘four colors’, after the four-color photoreceptors they have.

Human tetrachromats cannot see beyond the normal visible light spectrum. Their fourth cone is not in the ultraviolet range which has a shorter wavelength than visible light. But they are more sensitive to all colors within the color spectrum. For example, most of us would be unable to easily distinguish an exact shade of Azure-blue from Navy-blue, but to a tetrachromat it would be second-hand nature.

Largely, this concept teaches us that our points of view and perspectives for various things are often different: from abstract concepts to quite literally a sunset one might see.

Two people can look at the same blue and have different inner experiences. As Tom Stafford from BBC put it: “your ‘you-ness” is unique, we are certainly seeing different things when we talk about looking at something blue, if only because the act of seeing incorporates feelings and memories, as well as the raw light information arriving at our eyes.”

The Starry Night is a painting known to many people. Although there are many interpretations of this breathtaking artwork, as long as we unite to appreciate and embrace its beauty with our different realities, we have shared and celebrated it. To end in C.JoyBell C’s words, “we are all equal in the fact that we are all different.”


  1. Stafford, T. (2012b, February 14). Do we all see the same colours?

  2. Brookshire, B. (2020a, June 11). Let’s learn about colors. Science News for Students.

  3. Starry night. (n.d.). In wallpaper access.


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