Public colour experiments


Conceptual background

Colour is the simplest perception the brain has (even brainless jellyfish see lightness), and yet colour underpins so much of human activity – and indeed evolution itself. We live in a world shaped by colour. It influences what you eat, what you buy and how you live.

‘What is colour?’ and ‘How do we see colour?’ are the crucial questions at the heart of these public experiments, and indeed are part of a major programme of research at Lab of Misfits.

The research programme

Working in collaboration with the BBC’s Horizon programme, during the filming of ‘Do you see what I see?’(Lab of Misfits' most recent contribution to the BBC2 science series), we launched a series of high-to-low level experiments to answer these questions about colour.

The answers have been very exciting and challenge typical views of colour perception. What is more, this programme of research has not only directly engaged the public – illustrating our idea that the best form of public engagement of science is science itself – but has also confirmed the scientific merit of running real science in a public space.

To determine the inter-personal differences between people’s perception of colour, hundreds of subjects are required. Only in this way is it possible to find relationships between what we see and who we are (our personal state of being: sex, age, race, culture, status, etc). However, to do such experiments in a conventional lab would require months and months – experiments that we were able to complete in a matter of days in our lab at the Science Museum.

The experiments

Seven different experiments on colour were conducted, addressing questions that are basic at one level and more cognitive/high-level at the other. These questions include:

• How long does a minute last, and how does colour affect our percption of time?
• Does one’s sense of status alter one’s lower-level perceptions?
• Are we all affected by illusions to the same extent?
• Are emotions coloured?
• Are there common perceptual spaces in the brain that cross modality – between shape and colour, sound and colour, words and colour?
• What are the effects of status on the abstractness of images we make?

See also

Public perception project More

Public Colour Experiments