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Dartmouth scientists have discovered how our brains see the color spectrum, and it’s trippy AF

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that most people only see color in the dead center of their visual field.

Dartmouth scientists have discovered how our brains see the color spectrum, and it’s trippy AF
[Photo: stephan sorkin/Unsplash]

Look at your surroundings. With your eyes straight ahead, pay attention the colors in your peripheral vision. Did you know that your brain is filling in much of the color that you “see”? It is.

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A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that most people only see color in the dead center of their visual field, and not in the periphery. In other words, your sense of a rich, colorful world is inaccurate.

Gaze contingent rendering in immersive virtual reality. [Image: Caroline Robertson]
Researchers from Dartmouth College and Amherst College outfitted 180 participants with virtual reality goggles equipped with eye-tracking devices, and immersed them in virtual environments including tours of historic sites, a street dance performance, and a symphony rehearsal. The researchers programmed the environments to only show colors in the areas where the participant was looking, with the rest of the periphery desaturated, and most participants didn’t notice when color was removed from most of the scene. Watch this trippy video displaying the desaturation here.

The study found that most people’s color awareness is limited to the small area at which they are directly looking. For about a third of people, that area is tiny: They did not notice when 96% of their visual field was desaturated. Even when instructed to pay attention to peripheral vision, participants still didn’t notice.

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“We were amazed by how oblivious participants were when color was removed,” says senior author Caroline Robertson, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth. “Our results show that our intuitive sense of a rich, colorful visual world is largely incorrect. Our brain is likely filling in much of our perceptual experience.”

Though previous studies have tested color awareness in sight on screens, this study is noteworthy for simulating a real-world experience, giving insight into how people experience color in their daily lives.

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