December 2010
Volume 10, Issue 15
OSA Fall Vision Meeting Abstract  |   December 2010
How categorical is color perception?
Author Affiliations
  • Delwin T. Lindsey
    Department of Psychology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA
  • Angela M. Brown
    College of Optometry, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA
Journal of Vision December 2010, Vol.10, 25. doi:
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      Delwin T. Lindsey, Angela M. Brown; How categorical is color perception?. Journal of Vision 2010;10(15):25.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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Color naming is a classic topic of research on the relation between cognition and perception. The spectral composition of visible lights is continuously variable, yet most world languages partition this continuum into distinct color categories. Is this partition strictly linguistic? Or is the perception of colors itself intrinsically categorical?

There is great variation across languages in the number of color terms in everyday use, yet Berlin & Kay (1969) proposed that “basic” color terms are universal, and occur only in certain combinations. Our cluster analysis of 2616 informants (from the World Color Survey (Kay et al., 2009), a database of color naming in 110 world languages spoken in pre-industrialized cultures) reveals 11 universal English-like color terms and about four universal color term combinations (“motifs”). Strikingly, the worldwide diversity in color naming is often recapitulated within the individual WCS languages. Critics of the universality hypothesis often attribute within-language diversity to informant incompetence, but we also find considerable diversity in color naming among educated native English speakers.

We have also looked carefully for categorical perception in perceived color differences and visual search based on color: hue difference scaling and reaction times in visual search are not affected to any significant degree by within- vs. cross- category conditions when the stimuli are carefully controlled. Furthermore, our visual search data are well fit by a model based on responses in low-level chromatic channels.

Taken together, our results support the primacy of innate color vision processes in color perception.

Supported by R21EY018321 from the National Eye Institute. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Eye Institute or the National Institutes of Health. 
Berlin, B., Kay, P.(1969). Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press..
Kay, P., Berlin, B., Maffi, L., Merrifield, W. R., Cook, R.(2009). The world color survey. Stanford, California: CSLI Publications.

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