Babies Can Categorize Different Colors, Suggesting It's Hardwired Into Us


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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It ain't easy seeing green, although it comes naturally to babies. Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Colors are a strange thing: One person's blue might be another person's green, the Japanese language has a color called “mizu” that the English-speaking world doesn't even recognize, and let’s not even get started on "the dress”.

Despite this, a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, suggests that categorizing color is actually something hardwired into us, not purely a matter of culture and language. 


Infants can provide interesting insights into the human mind as they have not yet developed language skills and are (relatively) unshaped by cultural influences. Using an established technique called "infant looking time", which theorizes infants spend longer looking at unfamiliar things, so can demonstrate what they do and don't recognize or know, the research showed that infants as young as 4-6 months old appear to recognize five separate color categories: red, yellow, green, blue, and purple.

To discover this the researchers studied 179 infants to see how they reacted to 14 different colors spanning the whole visible spectrum of light. The infants were shown a color then left to familiarize themselves with it. They were then shown images of the same color and sometimes randomly a new color. They found that the infants looked at the new color for longer, meaning they perceived it to be different to the familiar one. Using this method, they worked through the spectrum of colors and found at which point the babies appeared to recognize a hue as a different color.

It became clear that the babies could differentiate between the five color categories, which is actually pretty odd. In many languages, blue and green are considered a single color. Nevertheless, the infants were able to differentiate between them. In theory, that means even among adults from cultures that don't have separate words for blue and green, their infants could naturally separate them as distinct colors. 

"You can think of it as a 'use it or lose it' sort of thing," Alice Skelton, the study's first author from the University of Sussex, told IFLScience. "Infants have this conceptual difference between what we think of in English as blue and green, but if their culture and language never references it, then it's not important or useful for them to keep this categorical distinction. Categories are all about being efficient at processing the world around you, so keeping hold of a distinction that is not commonly referred to isn't an efficient thing to do." 


Looking at different cultures around the world, there are many strange distinctions when it comes to color. For example, the ancient Greeks did not have a word for "blue" instead referring to the sky as "bronze", presumably due to the shade it goes when oxidized. This new research hopes to continue a deeper understanding of the relationship between color and biology, semantics, and culture.


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