How Colors Can Trick Our Brain


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.

Senior Journalist

Luca Santilli/Shutterstock

This article was produced in collaboration with Tide, who sponsor IFLScience

Color is one of the first things we learn about as kids. Even though we are constantly surrounded by it, the perception of color is a very curious thing. Differences in how people can look at the exact same color and see an entirely different shade profoundly affect how we experience the world around us – even down to how fresh or new our clothes look.


We perceive color thanks to some 6 to 7 million nifty little cells in our retina known as cones. We have three different types of these photoreceptor cells, each sensitive to different wavelengths of light. One is sensitive to green light, one to red light, and another to blue light. There are also rod cells that help us see in low light, and some humans actually have a fourth type of cone, but that’s for another story.

As the world learned with the online, boisterous debate of “The Dress” a few years ago, our perceptions of color can be very subjective; one person’s blue can be another person’s white.


Part of the reason why “The Dress” caused such an uproar is down to a phenomenon known as “chromatic adaptation,” which helps explain why people can sometimes experience color differently from others.

The human visual system has an ability to adjust to changes in illumination in order to preserve the appearance of an object’s colors. In other words, if a blue-ish light is shining onto a red book, the book might take on a purple color. However, due to our visual system accounting for this blue light, we will still be able to identify and even perceive the book as red.


However, we’re not always able to tell what hue of light is illuminating an object. Was the dress lit with the warm glow of an orangey-lamp or harsh bluish daylight? Our assumption of this could change our brain’s interpretation of what color we perceive.

Blending the knowledge of biological subtleties in color perception with the chemistry of cleaning allows the scientists at Tide to ensure your clothes stay looking vibrant and true to their original color, even as Tide strips away stains and soils.

Lots of things affect the staying power of colors on fabrics. After only a few wears and washes with inferior detergents, clothes can often become drab and lose their original sprightliness. This isn’t just because of superficial grass stains and gravy spills, it’s also due to body soil particles that became embedded within the fibers. By themselves, you can barely see these microscopic stains, but en masse, they leave a dull, grey shadow over your clothes and dramatically change the way their color is viewed. And that chlorine that keeps drinking water safe? It can fade the colors of clothes. Weirder still, the iron in your water can react with certain dyes to darken the color of clothes, making them less vibrant.

Fortunately, Tide has developed specialized engineered enzymes – along with a powerful mix of surfactants and polymers – that deeply attack these color-dulling soils, while scavengers and chelants help to keep chlorine and iron from reacting with dyes. All in all, this helps your favorite shirt stay crisp, clean, and as vivid as the day you bought it, well into the future.


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