Useful Fictions Becoming Less Useful

Humanity has long been under the shadow of the Axial Age, no less true today than in centuries past. But what has this meant in both our self-understanding and in the kind of societies we have created? Ideas, as memes, can survive and even dominate for millennia. This can happen even when they are wrong, as long as they are useful to the social order.

One such idea involves nativism and essentialism, made possible through highly developed abstract thought. This notion of something inherent went along with the notion of division, from mind-body dualism to brain modules (what is inherent in one area being separate from what is inherent elsewhere). It goes back at least to the ancient Greeks such as with Platonic idealism (each ideal an abstract thing unto itself), although abstract thought required two millennia of development before it gained its most powerful form through modern science. As Elisa J. Sobo noted, “Ironically, prior to the industrial revolution and the rise of the modern university, most thinkers took a very comprehensive view of the human condition. It was only afterward that fragmented, factorial, compartmental thinking began to undermine our ability to understand ourselves and our place in— and connection with— the world.”

Maybe we are finally coming around to more fully questioning these useful fictions because they have become less useful as the social order changes, as the entire world shifts around us with globalization, climate change, mass immigration, etc. We saw emotions as so essentialist that we decided to start a war against one of them with the War on Terror, as if this emotion was definitive of our shared reality (and a great example of metonymy, by the way), but obviously fighting wars against a reified abstraction isn’t the most optimal strategy for societal progress. Maybe we need new ways of thinking.

The main problem with useful fictions isn’t necessarily that they are false, partial, or misleading. A useful fiction wouldn’t last for millennia if it weren’t, first and foremost, useful (especially true in relation to the views of human nature found in folk psychology). It is true that our seeing these fictions for what they are is a major change, but more importantly what led us to question their validity is that some of them have stopped being as useful as they once were. The nativists, essentialists, and modularists argued that such things as emotional experience, color perception, and language learning were inborn abilities and natural instincts: genetically-determined, biologically-constrained, and neurocognitively-formed. Based on theory, immense amounts of time, energy, and resources were invested into the promises made.

This motivated the entire search to connect everything observable in humans back to a gene, a biological structure, or an evolutionary trait (with the brain getting outsized attention). Yet reality has turned out to be much more complex with environmental factors, epigenetics, brain plasticity, etc. The original quest hasn’t been as fruitful as hoped for, partly because of problems in conceptual frameworks and the scientific research itself, and this has led some to give up on the search. Consider how when one part of the brain is missing or damaged, other parts of the brain often compensate and take over the correlated function. There have been examples of people lacking most of their brain matter and still able to function in what appears to be outwardly normal behavior. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, such that the whole can maintain its integrity even without all of the parts.

The past view of the human mind and body has been too simplistic to an extreme. This is because we’ve lacked the capacity to see most of what goes on in making it possible. Our conscious minds, including our rational thought, is far more limited than many assumed. And the unconscious mind, the dark matter of the mind, is so much more amazing in what it accomplishes. In discussing what they call conceptual blending, Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner write (The Way We Think, p. 18):

“It might seem strange that the systematicity and intricacy of some of our most basic and common mental abilities could go unrecognized for so long. Perhaps the forming of these important mechanisms early in life makes them invisible to consciousness. Even more interestingly, it may be part of the evolutionary adaptiveness of these mechanisms that they should be invisible to consciousness, just as the backstage labor involved in putting on a play works best if it is unnoticed. Whatever the reason, we ignore these common operations in everyday life and seem reluctant to investigate them even as objects of scientific inquiry. Even after training, the mind seems to have only feeble abilities to represent to itself consciously what the unconscious mind does easily. This limit presents a difficulty to professional cognitive scientists, but it may be a desirable feature in the evolution of the species. One reason for the limit is that the operations we are talking about occur at lightning speed, presumably because they involve distributed spreading activation in the nervous system, and conscious attention would interrupt that flow.”

As they argue, conceptual blending helps us understand why a language module or instinct isn’t necessary. Research has shown that there is no single part of the brain nor any single gene that is solely responsible for much of anything. The constituent functions and abilities that form language likely evolved separately for other reasons that were advantageous to survival and social life. Language isn’t built into the brain as an evolutionary leap; rather, it was an emergent property that couldn’t have been predicted from any prior neurocognitive development, which is to say language was built on abilities that by themselves would not have been linguistic in nature.

Of course, Fauconnier and Turner are far from being the only proponents of such theories, as this perspective has become increasingly attractive. Another example is Mark Changizi’s theory presented in Harnessed where he argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature” (see more about this here and here). Whatever theory one goes with, what is required is to explain the research challenging and undermining earlier models of cognition, affect, linguistics, and related areas.

Another book I was reading is How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. She is covering similar territory, despite her focus being on something so seemingly simple as emotions. We rarely give emotions much thought, taking them for granted, but we shouldn’t. How we understand our experience and expression of emotion is part and parcel of a deeper view that our society holds about human nature, a view that also goes back millennia. This ancient lineage of inherited thought is what makes it problematic, since it feels intuitively true in it being so entrenched within our culture (Kindle Locations 91-93):

“And yet . .  . despite the distinguished intellectual pedigree of the classical view of emotion, and despite its immense influence in our culture and society, there is abundant scientific evidence that this view cannot possibly be true. Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion.”

“So what are they, really?,” Barret asks about emotions (Kindle Locations 99-104):

“When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real— that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.”

This goes along with an area of thought that arose out of philology, classical studies, consciousness studies, Jungian psychology, and anthropology. As always, I’m particularly thinking of the bicameral mind theory of Julian Jaynes. In the most ancient civilizations, there weren’t monetary systems nor according to Jaynes was there consciousness as we know it. He argues that individual self-consciousness was built on an abstract metaphorical space that was internalized and narratized. This privatization of personal space led to the possibility of self-ownership, the later basis of capitalism (and hence capitalist realism). It’s abstractions upon abstractions, until all of modern civilization bootstrapped itself into existence.

The initial potentials within human nature could and have been used to build diverse cultures, but modern society has genocidally wiped out most of this once existing diversity, leaving behind a near total dominance of WEIRD monoculture. This allows us modern Westerners to mistake our own culture for universal human nature. Our imaginations are constrained by a reality tunnel, which further strengthens the social order (control of the mind is the basis for control of society). Maybe this is why certain abstractions have been so central in conflating our social reality with physical reality, as Barret explains (Kindle Locations 2999-3002):

“Essentialism is the culprit that has made the classical view supremely difficult to set aside. It encourages people to believe that their senses reveal objective boundaries in nature. Happiness and sadness look and feel different, the argument goes, so they must have different essences in the brain. People are almost always unaware that they essentialize; they fail to see their own hands in motion as they carve dividing lines in the natural world.”

We make the world in our own image. And then we force this social order on everyone, imprinting it onto not just onto the culture but onto biology itself. With epigenetics, brain plasticity, microbiomes, etc, biology readily accepts this imprinting of the social order (Kindle Locations 5499-5503):

“By virtue of our values and practices, we restrict options and narrow possibilities for some people while widening them for others, and then we say that stereotypes are accurate. They are accurate only in relation to a shared social reality that our collective concepts created in the first place. People aren’t a bunch of billiard balls knocking one another around. We are a bunch of brains regulating each other’s body budgets, building concepts and social reality together, and thereby helping to construct each other’s minds and determine each other’s outcomes.”

There are clear consequences to humans as individuals and communities. But there are other costs as well (Kindle Locations 129-132):

“Not long ago, a training program called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) taught those TSA agents to detect deception and assess risk based on facial and bodily movements, on the theory that such movements reveal your innermost feelings. It didn’t work, and the program cost taxpayers $ 900 million. We need to understand emotion scientifically so government agents won’t detain us— or overlook those who actually do pose a threat— based on an incorrect view of emotion.”

This is one of the ways in which our fictions have become less than useful. As long as societies were relatively isolated, they could maintain their separate fictions and treat them as reality. But in a global society, these fictions end up clashing with each other in not just unuseful ways but in wasteful and dangerous ways. If TSA agents were only trying to observe people who shared a common culture of social constructs, the standard set of WEIRD emotional behaviors would apply. The problem is TSA agents have to deal with people from diverse cultures that have different ways of experiencing, processing, perceiving, and expressing what we call emotions. It would be like trying to understand world cuisine, diet, and eating habits by studying the American patrons of fast food restaurants.

Barret points to the historical record of ancient societies and to studies done on non-WEIRD cultures. What was assumed to be true based on WEIRD scientists studying WEIRD subjects turns out not to be true for the rest of the world. But there is an interesting catch to the research, the reason so much confusion prevailed for so long. It is easy to teach people cultural categories of emotion and how to identify them. Some of the initial research on non-WEIRD populations unintentionally taught the subjects the very WEIRD emotions that they were attempting to study. The structure of the studies themselves had WEIRD biases built into them. It was only with later research that they were able to filter out these biases and observe the actual non-WEIRD responses of non-WEIRD populations.

Researchers only came to understand this problem quite recently. Noam Chomsky, for example, thought it unnecessary to study actual languages in the field. Based on his own theorizing, he believed that studying a single language such as English would tell us everything we needed to know about the basic workings of all languages in the world. This belief proved massively wrong, as field research demonstrated. There was also an idealism in the early Cold War era that lead to false optimism, as Americans felt on top of the world. Chris Knight made this point in Decoding Chomsky (from the Preface):

“Pentagon’s scientists at this time were in an almost euphoric state, fresh from victory in the recent war, conscious of the potential of nuclear weaponry and imagining that they held ultimate power in their hands. Among the most heady of their dreams was the vision of a universal language to which they held the key. […] Unbelievable as it may nowadays sound, American computer scientists in the late 1950s really were seized by the dream of restoring to humanity its lost common tongue. They would do this by designing and constructing a machine equipped with the underlying code of all the world’s languages, instantly and automatically translating from one to the other. The Pentagon pumped vast sums into the proposed ‘New Tower’.”

Chomsky’s modular theory dominated linguistics for more than a half century. It still is held in high esteem, even as the evidence increasingly is stacked against it. This wasn’t just a waste of immense amount of funding. It derailed an entire field of research and stunted the development of a more accurate understanding. Generations of linguists went chasing after a mirage. No brain module of language has been found nor is there any hope of ever finding one. Many researchers wasted their entire careers on a theory that proved false and many of these researchers continue to defend it, maybe in the hope that another half century of research will finally prove it to be true after all.

There is no doubt that Chomsky has a brilliant mind. He is highly skilled in debate and persuasion. He won the battle of ideas, at least for a time. Through sheer power of his intellect, he was able to overwhelm his academic adversaries. His ideas came to dominate the field of linguistics, in what came to be known as the cognitive revolution. But Daniel Everett has stated that “it was not a revolution in any sense, however popular that narrative has become” (Dark Matter of the Mind, Kindle Location 306). If anything, Chomsky’s version of essentialism caused the temporary suppression of a revolution that was initiated by linguistic relativists and social constructionists, among others. The revolution was strangled in the crib, partly because it was fighting against an entrenched ideological framework that was millennia old. The initial attempts at research struggled to offer a competing ideological framework and they lost that struggle. Then they were quickly forgotten about, as if the evidence they brought forth was irrelevant.

Barret explains the tragedy of this situation. She is speaking of essentialism in terms of emotions, but it applies to the entire scientific project of essentialism. It has been a failed project that refuses to accept its failure, a paradigm that refuses to die in order to make way for something else. She laments all of the waste and lost opportunities (Kindle Locations 3245-3293):

“Now that the final nails are being driven into the classical view’s coffin in this era of neuroscience, I would like to believe that this time, we’ll actually push aside essentialism and begin to understand the mind and brain without ideology. That’s a nice thought, but history is against it. The last time that construction had the upper hand, it lost the battle anyway and its practitioners vanished into obscurity. To paraphrase a favorite sci-fi TV show, Battlestar Galactica, “All this has happened before and could happen again.” And since the last occurrence, the cost to society has been billions of dollars, countless person-hours of wasted effort, and real lives lost. […]

“The official history of emotion research, from Darwin to James to behaviorism to salvation, is a byproduct of the classical view. In reality, the alleged dark ages included an outpouring of research demonstrating that emotion essences don’t exist. Yes, the same kind of counterevidence that we saw in chapter 1 was discovered seventy years earlier . .  . and then forgotten. As a result, massive amounts of time and money are being wasted today in a redundant search for fingerprints of emotion. […]

“It’s hard to give up the classical view when it represents deeply held beliefs about what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the facts remain that no one has found even a single reliable, broadly replicable, objectively measurable essence of emotion. When mountains of contrary data don’t force people to give up their ideas, then they are no longer following the scientific method. They are following an ideology. And as an ideology, the classical view has wasted billions of research dollars and misdirected the course of scientific inquiry for over a hundred years. If people had followed evidence instead of ideology seventy years ago, when the Lost Chorus pretty solidly did away with emotion essences, who knows where we’d be today regarding treatments for mental illness or best practices for rearing our children.”


Blue on Blue

“Abstract words are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.”
~ Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the
Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

“This blue was the principle that transcended principles. This was the taste, the wish, the Binah that understands, the dainty fingers of personality and the swirling fingerprint lines of individuality, this sigh that returns like a forgotten and indescribable scent that never dies but only you ever knew, this tingle between familiar and strange, this you that never there was word for, this identifiable but untransmittable sensation, this atmosphere without reason, this illicit fairy kiss for which you are more fool than sinner, this only thing that God and Satan mistakenly left you for your own and which both (and everyone else besides) insist to you is worthless— this, your only and invisible, your peculiar— this secret blue.”
~ Quentin S. Crisp, Blue on Blue

Perception is as much cognition as sensation. Colors don’t exist in the world. It is our brain’s way of processing light waves detected by the eyes. Someone unable to see from birth will never be able to see normal colors, even if they gain sight as an adult. The brain has to learn how to see the world and that is a process that primarily happens in infancy and childhood.

Radical questions follow from this insight. Do we experience blue, forgiveness, individuality, etc before our culture has the language for it? And, conversely, does the language we use and how we use it indicate our actual experience? Or does it filter and shape it? Did the ancients lack not only perceived blueness but also individuated/interiorized consciousness and artistic perspective because they had no way of communicating and expressing it? If they possessed such things as their human birthright, why did they not communicate them in their texts and show them in their art?

The most ancient people would refer to the sky as black. Some isolated people in more recent times have also been observed offering this same description. This apparently isn’t a strange exception. Guy Deutscher mentions that, in an informal color experiment, his young daughter once pointed to the “pitch-black sky late at night” and declared it blue—that was at the age of four, long after having learned the color names for blue and black. She had the language to make the distinction and yet she made a similar ‘mistake’ as some isolated island people. How could that be? Aren’t ‘black’ and ‘blue’ obviously different?

The ancients described physical appearances in some ways that seem bizarre to the modern sensibility. Homer says the sea appears something like wine and so do sheep. Or else the sea is violet, just as are oxen and iron. Even more strangely, green is the color of honey and the color human faces turn under emotional distress. Yet no where in the ancient world is anything blue for no word for it existed. Things that seem blue to us are either green, black or simply dark in ancient texts.

It has been argued that Homer’s language such as the word for ‘bronze’ might not have referred to color at all. But that just adds to the strangeness. We not only can’t determine what colors he might have been referring to or even if he was describing colors at all. There weren’t abstractly generalized color terms that were exclusively dedicated to colors, instead also describing other physical features, psychological experiences, and symbolic values. This might imply that synesthesia once was a more common experience, related to the greater capacity preliterate individuals had for memorizing vast amounts of information (see Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies by Lynne Kelly).

The paucity and confusion of ancient color language indicates color wasn’t perceived as all that significant, to the degree it was consciously perceived at all, at least not in the way we moderns think about it. Color hue might have not seemed all that relevant in the ancient world that was mostly lacking artificially colored objects and entirely lacking in bright garden flowers. Besides the ancient Egyptians, no one in the earliest civilizations had developed blue pigment and hence a word to describe it. Blue is a rare color in nature. Even water and sky is rarely a bright clear blue, when blue at all.

This isn’t just about color. There is something extremely bizarre going on, according to what we moderns assume to the case about the human mind and perception.

Consider the case of the Piraha, as studied by Daniel L. Everett (a man who personally understands the power of their cultural worldview). The Piraha have no color terms, not as single words, although they are able to describe colors using multiple words and concrete comparisons—such as red described as being like blood or green as like not yet ripe. Of course, they’ve been in contact with non-Piraha for a while now and so no one knows how they would’ve talked about colors before interaction with outsiders.

From a Western perspective, there are many other odd things about the Piraha. Their language does not fit the expectations of what many have thought as universal to all human language. They have no terms for numbers and counting, as well as no “quantifiers like all, each, every, and so on” (Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, p. 119). Originally, they had no pronouns and the pronouns they borrowed from other languages are used limitedly. They refer to ‘say’ in place of ‘think’, which makes one wonder what this indicates about their experience—is their thought an act of speaking?

Along with lacking ancestor worship, there aren’t even words to refer to family one never personally knew. Also, there are no creation stories or myths or fiction or any apparent notion of the world having been created or another supernatural world existing. They don’t think in those terms nor, one might presume, perceive reality in those terms. They are epistemological agnostics about anything they haven’t personally experienced or someone they personally know hasn’t personally experienced, and their language is extremely precise in knowledge claims, making early Western philosophers seem simpleminded in comparison. Everett was put in the unfortunate position of having tried to convert them to Christianity, but instead they converted him to atheism. Yet the Piraha live in a world they perceive as filled with spirits. These aren’t otherworldly spirits. They are very much in this world and when a Piraha speaks as a spirit they are that spirit. To put it another way, the world is full of diverse and shifting selves.

Color terms refer to abstract unchanging categories, the very thing that seems least relevant to the Piraha. They favor a subjective mentality, but that doesn’t mean they possess a subjective self similar to Western culture. Like many hunter-gatherers, they have a fluid sense of identity that changes along with their names, their former self treated as no longer existing whatsoever, just gone. There is no evidence of belief in a constant self that would survive death, as there is no belief in gods nor a heaven and hell. Instead of being obsessed with what is beyond, they are endlessly fascinated by what is at the edge of experience, what appears and disappears. In Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha, Everett explains this:

“After discussions and checking of many examples of this, it became clearer that the Piraha are talking about liminality—situations in which an item goes in and out of the boundaries of their experience. This concept is found throughout Piraha˜ culture.
Piraha˜’s excitement at seeing a canoe go around a river bend is hard to describe; they see this almost as traveling into another dimension. It is interesting, in light of the postulated cultural constraint on grammar, that there is an important Piraha˜ term and cultural value for crossing the border between experience and nonexperience.”

To speak of colors is to speak of particular kinds of perceptions and experiences. The Piraha culture is practically incomprehensible to us, as the Piraha represent an alien view of the world. Everett, in making a conclusion, writes that,

“Piraha thus provides striking evidence for the influence of culture on major grammatical structures, contradicting Newmeyer’s (2002:361) assertion (citing “virtually all linguists today”), that “there is no hope of correlating a language’s gross grammatical properties with sociocultural facts about its speakers.” If I am correct, Piraha shows that gross grammatical properties are not only correlated with sociocultural facts but may be determined by them.”

Even so, Everett is not arguing for a strong Whorfian positon of linguistic determinism. Then again, Vyvyan Evans states that not even Benjamin Lee Whorf made this argument. In Language, Thought and Reality, Whorf wrote (as quoted by Evans in The Language Myth):

“The tremendous importance of language cannot, in my opinion, be taken to mean necessarily that nothing is back of it of the nature of what has traditionally been called ‘mind’. My own studies suggest, to me, that language, for all its kingly role, is in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before any communication, signalling, or symbolism whatsoever can occur.”

Anyway, Everett observed that the Piraha demonstrated a pattern to how they linguistically treated certain hues of color. It’s just that they had much diversity and complexity in how they described colors, a dark brown object being described differently than a dark-skinned person, and no consistency across all the Piraha members in which phrases they’d use to describe which colors. Still, like any other humans, they had the capacity for color perception, whether or not their color cognition matches that of other cultures.

To emphasize the point, the following is a similar example, as presented by Vyvyan Evans from The Language Myth (p. 207-8):

“The colour system in Yélî Dnye has been studied extensively by linguistic anthropologist Stephen Levinson. 38 Levinson argues that the lesson from Rossel Island is that each of the following claims made by Berlin and Kay is demonstrably false:

  • Claim 1: All languages have basic colour terms
  • Claim 2: The colour spectrum is so salient a perceptual field that all cultures must systematically and exhaustively name the colour space
  • Claim 3: For those basic colour terms that exist in any given language, there are corresponding focal colours – there is an ideal hue that is the prototypical shade for a given basic colour term
  • Claim 4: The emergence of colour terms follows a universal evolutionary pattern

“A noteworthy feature of Rossel Island culture is this: there is little interest in colour. For instance, there is no native artwork or handiwork in colour. The exception to this is hand-woven patterned baskets, which are usually uncoloured, or, if coloured, are black or blue. Moreover, the Rossel language doesn’t have a word that corresponds to the English word colour: the domain of colour appears not to be a salient conceptual category independent of objects. For instance, in Yélî, it is not normally possible to ask what colour something is, as one can in English. Levinson reports that the equivalent question would be: U pââ ló nté? This translates as “Its body, what is it like?” Furthermore, colours are not usually associated with objects as a whole, but rather with surfaces.”

Evans goes into greater detail. Suffice it to say, she makes a compelling argument that this example contradicts and falsifies the main claims of conventional theory, specifically that of Berlin and Kay. This culture defies expectations. It’s one of the many exceptions that appears to disprove the hypothetical rule.

Part of the challenge is we can’t study other cultures as neutral observers. Researchers end up influencing those cultures they study or else simply projecting their own cultural biases onto them and so interpreting the results accordingly. Even the tests used to analyze color perceptions across cultures are themselves culturally biased. They don’t just measure how people divide up hues. In the process of being tested, the design of the test is teaching the subjects a particular way of thinking about color perception. The test can’t tell us how people think about colors prior to the test itself. And obviously, even if the test could accomplish this impossible feat, we have no way of time traveling back in order to apply the test to ancient people.

We are left with a mystery and no easy way to explore it.

* * *

Here are a few related posts of mine. And below that are other sources of info, including a video at the very bottom.

Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

Folk Psychology, Theory of Mind & Narrative

Self, Other, & World

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?
by Guy Deutscher

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about. […]

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?
by Tim Howard, Radiolab

Is the Sky Blue?
by Lisa Wade, PhD, Sociological Images

Even things that seem objectively true may only seem so if we’ve been given a framework with which to see it; even the idea that a thing is a thing at all, in fact, is partly a cultural construction. There are other examples of this phenomenon. What we call “red onions” in the U.S., for another example, are seen as blue in parts of Germany. Likewise, optical illusions that consistently trick people in some cultures — such as the Müller-Lyer illusion — don’t often trick people in others.

Could our ancestors see blue?
by Ellie Zolfagharifard, Daily Mail

But it’s not just about lighting conditions or optical illusions – evidence is mounting that until we have a way to describe something, we may not see its there.

Fathoming the wine-dark sea
by Christopher Howse, The Spectator

It wasn’t just the ‘wine-dark sea’. That epithet oinops, ‘wine-looking’ (the version ‘wine-dark’ came from Andrew Lang’s later translation) was applied both to the sea and to oxen, and it was accompanied by other colours just as nonsensical. ‘Violet’, ioeis, (from the flower) was used by Homer of the sea too, but also of wool and iron. Chloros, ‘green’, was used of honey, faces and wood. By far the most common colour words in his reticent vocabulary were black (170 times) and white (100), followed distantly by red (13).

What could account for this alien colour-sense? It wasn’t that Homer (if Homer existed) was blind, for there are parallel usages in other Greek authors.

A Winelike Sea
by Caroline Alexander, Lapham’s Quarterly

The image Homer hoped to conjure with his winelike sea greatly depended upon what wine meant to his audience. While the Greeks likely knew of white wine, most ancient wine was red, and in the Homeric epics, red wine is the only wine specifically described. Drunk at feasts, poured onto the earth in sacred rituals, or onto the ashes around funeral pyres, Homeric wine is often mélas, “dark,” or even “black,” a term with broad application, used of a brooding spirit, anger, death, ships, blood, night, and the sea. It is also eruthrós, meaning “red” or the tawny-red hue of bronze; and aíthops, “bright,” “gleaming,” a term also used of bronze and of smoke in firelight. While these terms notably have more to do with light, and the play of light, than with color proper, Homeric wine was clearly dark and red and would have appeared especially so when seen in the terracotta containers in which it was transported. “Winelike sea” cannot mean clear seawater, nor the white splash of sea foam, nor the pale color of a clear sea lapping the shallows of a sandy shore. […]

Homer’s sea, whether háls, thálassa, or póntos, is described as misty, darkly troubled, black-dark, and grayish, as well as bright, deep, clashing, tumultuous, murmuring, and tempestuous—but it is never blue. The Greek word for blue, kuáneos, was not used of the sea until the late sixth or early fifth century BC, in a poem by the lyric poet Simonides—and even here, it is unclear if “blue” is strictly meant, and not, again, “dark”:

the fish straight up from the
dark/blue water leapt
at the beautiful song

After Simonides, the blueness of kuáneos was increasingly asserted, and by the first century, Pliny the Elder was using the Latin form of the word, cyaneus, to describe the cornflower, whose modern scientific name, Centaurea cyanus, still preserves this lineage. But for Homer kuáneos is “dark,” possibly “glossy-dark” with hints of blue, and is used of Hector’s lustrous hair, Zeus’ eyebrows, and the night.

Ancient Greek words for color in general are notoriously baffling: In The Iliad, “chlorós fear” grips the armies at the sound of Zeus’ thunder. The word, according to R. J. Cunliffe’s Homeric lexicon, is “an adjective of color of somewhat indeterminate sense” that is “applied to what we call green”—which is not the same as saying it means “green.” It is also applied “to what we call yellow,” such as honey or sand. The pale green, perhaps, of vulnerable shoots struggling out of soil, the sickly green of men gripped with fear? […]

Rather than being ignorant of color, it seems that the Greeks were less interested in and attentive to hue, or tint, than they were to light. As late as the fourth century BC, Plato named the four primary colors as white, black, red, and bright, and in those cases where a Greek writer lists colors “in order,” they are arranged not by the Newtonian colors of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—but from lightest to darkest. And The Iliad contains a broad, specialized vocabulary for describing the movement of light: argós meaning “flashing” or “glancing white”; aiólos, “glancing, gleaming, flashing,” or, according to Cunliffe’s Lexicon, “the notion of glancing light passing into that of rapid movement,” and the root of Hector’s most defining epithet, koruthaíolos—great Hector “of the shimmering helm.” Thus, for Homer, the sky is “brazen,” evoking the glare of the Aegean sun and more ambiguously “iron,” perhaps meaning “burnished,” but possibly our sense of a “leaden” sky. Significantly, two of the few unambiguous color terms in The Iliad, and which evoke the sky in accordance with modern sensibilities, are phenomena of light: “Dawn robed in saffron” and dawn shining forth in “rosy fingers of light.”

So too, on close inspection, Homeric terms that appear to describe the color of the sea, have more to do with light. The sea is often glaukós or mélas. In Homer, glaukós (whence glaucoma) is color neutral, meaning “shining” or “gleaming,” although in later Greek it comes to mean “gray.” Mélas (whence melancholy) is “dark in hue, dark,” sometimes, perhaps crudely, translated as “black.” It is used of a range of things associated with water—ships, the sea, the rippled surface of the sea, “the dark hue of water as seen by transmitted light with little or no reflection from the surface.” It is also, as we have seen, commonly used of wine.

So what color is the sea? Silver-pewter at dawn; gray, gray-blue, green-blue, or blue depending on the particular day; yellow or red at sunset; silver-black at dusk; black at night. In other words, no color at all, but rather a phenomenon of reflected light. The phrase “winelike,” then, had little to do with color but must have evoked some attribute of dark wine that would resonate with an audience familiar with the sea—with the póntos, the high sea, that perilous path to distant shores—such as the glint of surface light on impenetrable darkness, like wine in a terracotta vessel. Thus, when Achilles, “weeping, quickly slipping away from his companions, sat/on the shore of the gray salt sea,” stretches forth his hands toward the oínopa pónton, he looks not on the enigmatic “wine-dark sea,” but, more explicitly, and possibly with more weight of melancholy, on a “sea as dark as wine.”

Ancient Greek Color Vision
by Ananda Triulzi

In his writings Homer surprises us by his use of color. His color descriptive palate was limited to metallic colors, black, white, yellowish green and purplish red, and those colors he often used oddly, leaving us with some questions as to his actual ability to see colors properly (1). He calls the sky “bronze” and the sea and sheep as the color of wine, he applies the adjective chloros (meaning green with our understanding) to honey, and a nightingale (2). Chloros is not the only color that Homer uses in this unusual way. He also uses kyanos oddly, “Hector was dragged, his kyanos hair was falling about him” (3). Here it would seem, to our understanding, that Hector’s hair was blue as we associate the term kyanos with the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, in our thinking kyanos means cyan (4). But we cannot assume that Hector’s hair was blue, rather, in light of the way that Homer consistently uses color adjectives, we must think about his meaning, did he indeed see honey as green, did he not see the ocean as blue, how does his perception of color reflect on himself, his people, and his world.

Homer’s odd color description usage was a cultural phenomenon and not simply color blindness on his part, Pindar describes the dew as chloros, in Euripides chloros describes blood and tears (5). Empedocles, one of the earliest Ancient Greek color theorists, described color as falling into four areas, light or white, black or dark, red and yellow; Xenophanes described the rainbow as having three bands of color: purple, green/yellow, and red (6). These colors are fairly consistent with the four colors used by Homer in his color description, this leads us to the conclusion that all Ancient Greeks saw color only in the premise of Empedocles’ colors, in some way they lacked the ability to perceive the whole color spectrum. […]

This inability to perceive something because of linguistic restriction is called linguistic relativity (7). Because the Ancient Greeks were not really conscious of seeing, and did not have the words to describe what they unconsciously saw, they simply did not see the full spectrum of color, they were limited by linguistic relativity.

The color spectrum aside, it remains to explain the loose and unconventional application of Homer and other’s limited color descriptions, for an answer we look to the work of Eleanor Irwin. In her work, Irwin suggests that besides perceiving less chromatic distinction, the Ancient Greeks perceived less division between color, texture, and shadow, chroma may have been difficult for them to isolate (8). For the Ancient Greeks, the term chloros has been suggested to mean moistness, fluidity, freshness and living (9). It also seems likely that Ancient Greek perception of color was influenced by the qualities that they associated with colors, for instance the different temperaments being associated with colors probably affected the way they applied color descriptions to things. They didn’t simply see color as a surface, they saw it as a spirited thing and the word to describe it was often fittingly applied as an adjective meaning something related to the color itself but different from the simplicity of a refined color.

The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World
by Erin Hoffman

Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze. […]

The conspicuous absence of blue is not limited to the Greeks. The color “blue” appears not once in the New Testament, and its appearance in the Torah is questioned (there are two words argued to be types of blue, sappir and tekeleth, but the latter appears to be arguably purple, and neither color is used, for instance, to describe the sky). Ancient Japanese used the same word for blue and green (青 Ao), and even modern Japanese describes, for instance, thriving trees as being “very blue,” retaining this artifact (青々とした: meaning “lush” or “abundant”). […]

Blue certainly existed in the world, even if it was rare, and the Greeks must have stumbled across it occasionally even if they didn’t name it. But the thing is, if we don’t have a word for something, it turns out that to our perception—which becomes our construction of the universe—it might as well not exist. Specifically, neuroscience suggests that it might not just be “good or bad” for which “thinking makes it so,” but quite a lot of what we perceive.

The malleability of our color perception can be demonstrated with a simple diagram, shown here as figure six, “Afterimages”. The more our photoreceptors are exposed to the same color, the more fatigued they become, eventually giving out entirely and creating a reversed “afterimage” (yellow becomes blue, red becomes green). This is really just a parlor trick of sorts, and more purely physical, but it shows how easily shifted our vision is; other famous demonstrations like this selective attention test (its name gives away the trick) emphasize the power our cognitive functions have to suppress what we see. Our brains are pattern-recognizing engines, built around identifying things that are useful to us and discarding the rest of what we perceive as meaningless noise. (And a good thing that they do; deficiencies in this filtering, called sensory gating, are some of what cause neurological dysfunctions such as schizophrenia and autism.)

This suggests the possibility that not only did Homer lack a word for what we know as “blue”—he might never have perceived the color itself. To him, the sky really was bronze, and the sea really was the same color as wine. And because he lacked the concept “blue”—therefore its perception—to him it was invisible, nonexistent. This notion of concepts and language limiting cognitive perception is called linguistic relativism, and is typically used to describe the ways in which various cultures can have difficulty recalling or retaining information about objects or concepts for which they lack identifying language. Very simply: if we don’t have a word for it, we tend to forget it, or sometimes not perceive it at all. […]

So, if we’re all synesthetes, and our minds are extraordinarily plastic, capable of reorienting our entire perception around the addition of a single new concept (“there is a color between green and violet,” “schizophrenia is much more common than previously believed”), the implications of Homer’s wine-dark sea are rich indeed.

We are all creatures of our own time, our realities framed not by the limits of our knowledge but by what we choose to perceive. Do we yet perceive all the colors there are? What concepts are hidden from us by the convention of our language? When a noblewoman of Syracuse looked out across the Mare Siculum, did she see waves of Bacchanalian indigo beneath a sunset of hammered bronze? If a seagull flew east toward Thapsus, did she think of Venus and the fall of Troy?

The myriad details that define our everyday existence may define also the boundaries of our imagination, and with it our dreams, our ethics. We are lenses moving through time, beings of color and shadow.

Evolution of the Color Blue
by Dov Michaeli MD, PhD, The Doctor Weighs In

Why were black, white, and red the first colors to be perceived by our forefathers? The evolutionary explanation is quite straightforward: ancient humans had to distinguish between night and day. And red is important for recognizing blood and danger. Even today, in us moderns, the color red causes an increase in skin galvanic response, a sign of tension and alarm. Green and yellow entered the vocabulary as the need to distinguish ripe fruit from unripe, grasses that are green from grasses that are wilting, etc. But what is the need for naming the color blue? Blue fruits are not very common, and the color of the sky is not really vital for survival.

The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part I)
by Aatish Bhatia, Empirical Zeal

Some languages have just three basic colors, others have 4, 5, 6, and so on. There’s even a debate as to whether the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon have any specialized color words at all! (If you ask a Pirahã tribe member to label something red, they’ll say that it’s blood-like).

But there’s still a pattern hidden in this diversity. […] You start with a black-and-white world of darks and lights. There are warm colors, and cool colors, but no finer categories. Next, the reds and yellows separate away from white. You can now have a color for fire, or the fiery color of the sunset. There are tribes that have stopped here. Further down, blues and greens break away from black. Forests, skies, and oceans now come of their own in your visual vocabulary. Eventually, these colors separate further. First, red splits from yellow. And finally, blue from green.

The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part II)
by Aatish Bhatia, Empirical Zeal

The researchers found that there is a real, measurable difference in how we perform on these two tasks. In general, it takes less time to identify that odd blue square compared to the odd green one. This makes sense to anyone who’s ever tried looking for a tennis ball in the grass. It’s not that hard, but I’d rather the ball be blue. In once case you are jumping categories (blue versus green), and in the other, staying with a category (green versus green).

However, and this is where things start to get a bit strange, this result only holds if the differently colored square was in the right half of the circle. If it was in the left half (as in the example images above), then there’s no difference in reaction times – it takes just as long to spot the odd blue as the odd green. It seems that color categories only matter in the right half of your visual field! […]

The crucial point is that everything that we see in the right half of our vision is processed in the left hemisphere of our brain, and everything we see in the left half is processed by the right hemisphere. And for most of us, the left brain is stronger at processing language. So perhaps the language savvy half of our brain is helping us out. […]

But how do we know that language is the key here? Back to the previous study. The researchers repeated the color circle experiment, but this time threw in a verbal distraction. The subjects were asked to memorize a word before each color test. The idea was to keep their language circuits distracted. And at the same time, other subjects were shown an image to memorize, not a word. In this case, it’s a visual distraction, and the language part of the brain needn’t be disturbed.

They found that when you’re verbally distracted, it suddenly becomes harder to separate blue from green (you’re slower at straddling color categories). In fact the results showed that people found this more difficult then separating two shades of green. However, if the distraction is visual, not verbal, things are different. It becomes easy to spot the blue among green, so you’re faster at straddling categories.

All of this is only true for your left brain. Meanwhile, your right brain is rather oblivious to these categories (until, of course, the left brain bothers to inform it). The conclusion is that language is somehow enhancing your left brain’s ability to discern different colors with different names. Cultural forces alter our perception in ever so subtle a way, by gently tugging our visual leanings in different directions.

Color categories: Confirmation of the relativity hypothesis.
by Debi Roberson, Jules Davidoff, Ian R. L. Davies, & Laura R. Shapiro

In a category-learning paradigm, there was no evidence that Himba participants perceived the blue – green region of color space in a categorical manner. Like Berinmo speakers, they did not find this division easier to learn than an arbitrary one in the center of the green category. There was also a significant advantage for learning the dumbu-burou division, over the yellow-green division. It thus appears that CP for color category boundaries is tightly linked to the linguistic categories of the participant.

Knowing color terms enhances recognition: Further evidence from English and Himba
by Julie Goldstein, Jules B. Davidoff, & Debi Roberson, JECP

Two experiments attempted to reconcile discrepant recent findings relating to children’s color naming and categorization. In a replication of Franklin and colleagues ( Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 90 (2005) 114–141), Experiment 1 tested English toddlers’ naming and memory for blue–green and blue–purple colors. It also found advantages for between-category presentations that could be interpreted as support for universal color categories. However, a different definition of knowing color terms led to quite different conclusions in line with the Whorfian view of Roberson and colleagues (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133 (2004) 554–571). Categorical perception in recognition memory was now found only for children with a fuller understanding of the relevant terms. It was concluded that color naming can both under estimate and overestimate toddlers’ knowledge of color terms. Experiment 2 replicated the between-category recognition superiority found in Himba children by Franklin and colleagues for the blue–purple range. But Himba children, whose language does not have separate terms for green and blue, did not show across-category advantage for that set; rather, they behaved like English children who did not know their color terms.

The Effects of Color Names on Color Concepts, or Like Lazarus Raised from the Tomb
by Chris, ScienceBlogs

It’s interesting that the Berinmo and Himba tribes have the same number of color terms, as well, because that rules out one possible alternative explanation of their data. It could be that as languages develop, they develop a more sophisticated color vocabulary, which eventually approximates the color categories that are actually innately present in our visual systems. We would expect, then, that two languages that are at similar levels of development (in other words, they both have the same number of color categories) would exhibit similar effects, but the speakers’ of the two languages remembered and perceived the colors differently. Thus it appears that languages do not develop towards any single set of universal color categories. In fact, Roberson et al. (2004) reported a longitudinal study that implies that exactly the opposite may be the case4. They found that children in the Himba tribe, and English-speaking children in the U.S., initially categorized color chips in a similar way, but as they grew older and more familiar with the color terms of their languages, their categorizations diverged, and became more consistent with their color names. This is particularly strong evidence that color names affect color concepts.

Forget the dress; what color did early Israelites see when they looked up to the sky?
by David Streever, Episcopal Cafe

The children of the Himba were able to differentiate between many more shades of green than their English counterparts, but did not recognize the color blue as being distinct from green. The research found that the 11 basic English colors have no basis in the visual system, lending further credence to the linguistic theories of Deutscher, Geiger, Gladstone, and other academics.

Colour Categories as Cultural Constructs
by Jules Davidoff, Artbrain

This is a group of people in Namibia who were asked to do some color matching and similarity judgments for us. It’s a remote part of the world, but not quite so remote that somebody hasn’t got the t-shirt, but it’s pretty remote. That’s the sort of environment they live in, and these are the youngsters that I’m going to show you some particular data on. They are completely monolingual in their own language, which has a tremendous richness in certain types of terms, in cattle terms (I can’t talk about that now), but has a dramatic lack in color terms. They’ve only got five color terms. So all of the particular colors of the world, and this is an illustration which can go from white to black at the top, red to yellow, green, blue, purple, back to red again, if this was shown in terms of the whole colors of the spectrum, but they only have five terms. So they see the world as, perhaps differently than us, perhaps slightly plainer. So we looked at these young children, and we showed them a navy blue color at the top and we asked them to point to the same color again from another group of colors. And those colors included the correct color, but of course sometimes the children made mistakes. What I want to show was that the English children and the Himba children, these people are the Himba of Northwest Namibia, start out from the same place, they have this undefined color space in which, at the beginning of the testing, T1, they make errors in choosing the navy blue, sometimes they’ll choose the blue, sometimes they’ll choose the black, sometimes they’ll choose the purple. Now the purple one, actually if you did a spectral analysis, the blue and the purple, the one on the right, are the closest. And as you can see, as the children got older, the most common error, both for English children and the Himba children, is the increase (that’s going up on the graph) of the purple mistakes. But, their language, the Himba language, has the same word for blue as for black. We, of course, have the same word for the navy blue as the blue on the left, only as the children get older, three or four, the English children only ever confuse the navy blue to the blue on the left, whereas the Himba children confuse the navy blue with the black. So, what’s happening? Someone asked yesterday whether the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis had any currency. Well, if it has a little bit of currency, it has it certainly here, in that what is happening, because the names of colors mean different things in the different cultures, because blue and black are the same in the Himba language, the actual similarity does seem to have been altered in the pictorial register. So, the blues that we call blue, and the claim is that there is no natural category called blue, they were just sensations we want to group together, those natural categories don’t exist. But because we have constructed these categories, blues look more similar to us in the pictorial register, whereas to these people in Northwest Namibia, the blues and the blacks look more similar. So, in brief, I’d like to further add more evidence or more claim that we are constructing the world of colors and in some way at least our memory structures do alter, to a modest extent at least, what we’re seeing.

Hues and views
A cross-cultural study reveals how language shapes color perception.
by Rachel Adelson, APA

Not only has no evidence emerged to link the 11 basic English colors to the visual system, but the English-Himba data support the theory that color terms are learned relative to language and culture.

First, for children who didn’t know color terms at the start of the study, the pattern of memory errors in both languages was very similar. Crucially, their mistakes were based on perceptual distances between colors rather than a given set of predetermined categories, arguing against an innate origin for the 11 basic color terms of English. The authors write that an 11-color organization may have become common because it efficiently serves cultures with a greater need to communicate more precisely. Still, they write, “even if [it] were found to be optimal and eventually adopted by all cultures, it need not be innate.”

Second, the children in both cultures didn’t acquire color terms in any particular, predictable order–such as the universalist idea that the primary colors of red, blue, green and yellow are learned first.

Third, the authors say that as both Himba and English children started learning their cultures’ color terms, the link between color memory and color language increased. Their rapid perceptual divergence once they acquired color terms strongly suggests that cognitive color categories are learned rather than innate, according to the authors.

The study also spotlights the power of psychological research conducted outside the lab, notes Barbara Malt, PhD, a cognitive psychologist who studies language and thought and also chairs the psychology department at Lehigh University.

“To do this kind of cross-cultural work at all requires a rather heroic effort, [which] psychologists have traditionally left to linguists and anthropologists,” says Malt. “I hope that [this study] will inspire more cognitive and developmental psychologists to go into the field and pursue these kinds of comparisons, which are the only way to really find out which aspects of perception and cognition are universal and which are culture or language specific.”

Humans didn’t even see the colour blue until modern times, research suggests
by Fiona MacDonald, Science Alert

Another study by MIT scientists in 2007 showed that native Russian speakers, who don’t have one single word for blue, but instead have a word for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy), can discriminate between light and dark shades of blue much faster than English speakers.

This all suggests that, until they had a word from it, it’s likely that our ancestors didn’t see blue at all. Or, more accurately, they probably saw it as we do now, but they never really noticed it.

Blue was the Last Color Perceived by Humans
by Nancy Loyan Schuemann, Mysterious Universe

MRI experiments confirm that people who process color through their verbal left brains, where the names of colors are accessed, recognize them more quickly. Language molds us into the image of the culture in which we are born.

Categorical perception of color is lateralized to the right hemisphere in infants, but to the left hemisphere in adults
by A. Franklin, G. V. Drivonikou, L. Bevis, I. R. L. Davies, P. Kay, & T. Regier, PNAS

Both adults and infants are faster at discriminating between two colors from different categories than two colors from the same category, even when between- and within-category chromatic separation sizes are equated. For adults, this categorical perception (CP) is lateralized; the category effect is stronger for the right visual field (RVF)–left hemisphere (LH) than the left visual field (LVF)–right hemisphere (RH). Converging evidence suggests that the LH bias in color CP in adults is caused by the influence of lexical color codes in the LH. The current study investigates whether prelinguistic color CP is also lateralized to the LH by testing 4- to 6-month-old infants. A colored target was shown on a differently colored background, and time to initiate an eye movement to the target was measured. Target background pairs were either from the same or different categories, but with equal target-background chromatic separations. Infants were faster at initiating an eye movement to targets on different-category than same-category backgrounds, but only for targets in the LVF–RH. In contrast, adults showed a greater category effect when targets were presented to the RVF–LH. These results suggest that whereas color CP is stronger in the LH than RH in adults, prelinguistic CP in infants is lateralized to the RH. The findings suggest that language-driven CP in adults may not build on prelinguistic CP, but that language instead imposes its categories on a LH that is not categorically prepartitioned.

Categorical perception of colour in the left and right visual field is verbally mediated: Evidence from Korean
by Debi Roberson, Hyensou Pak, & J. Richard Hanley

In this study we demonstrate that Korean (but not English) speakers show Categorical perception (CP) on a visual search task for a boundary between two Korean colour categories that is not marked in English. These effects were observed regardless of whether target items were presented to the left or right visual field. Because this boundary is unique to Korean, these results are not consistent with a suggestion made by Drivonikou [Drivonikou, G. V., Kay, P., Regier, T., Ivry, R. B., Gilbert, A. L., Franklin, A. et al. (2007) Further evidence that Whorfian effects are stronger in the right visual field than in the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 1097–1102] that CP effects in the left visual field provide evidence for the existence of a set of universal colour categories. Dividing Korean participants into fast and slow responders demonstrated that fast responders show CP only in the right visual field while slow responders show CP in both visual fields. We argue that this finding is consistent with the view that CP in both visual fields is verbally mediated by the left hemisphere language system.

Linguistic Fossils of the Mind’s Eye
by Keith, UMMAGUMMA blog

The other, The Unfolding of Language (2005), deals with the actual evolution of language. […]

Yet, while erosion occurs there is also a creative force in the human development of language. That creativity is revealed in our unique capacity for metaphor. “…metaphor is the indispensible element in the thought-process of every one of us.” (page 117) “It transpired that metaphor is an essential tool of thought, an indispensible conceptual mechanism which allows us to think of abstract concepts in terms of simpler concrete things. It is, in fact, the only way we have of dealing with abstraction.” (page 142) […]

The use of what can be called ‘nouns’ and not just ‘things’ is a fairly recent occurrence in language, reflecting a shift in human experience. This is a ‘fossil’ of linguistics. “The flow from concrete to abstract has created many words for concepts that are no longer physical objects, but nonetheless behave like thing-words in the sentence. The resulting abstract concepts are no longer thing-words, but they inherit their distribution from the thing-words that gave rise to them. A new category of words has thus emerged…which we can now call ‘noun’.” (page 246)

The way language is used, its accepted uses by people through understood rules of grammar, is the residue of collective human experience. “The grammar of a language thus comes to code most compactly and efficiently those constructions that are used most frequently…grammar codes best what it does most often.” (page 261) This is centrally why I hold the grammar of language to be almost a sacred portal into human experience.

In the 2010 work, Deutscher’s emphasis shifts to why different languages reveal that humans actually experience life differently. We do not all feel and act the same way about the things of life. My opinion is that it is a mistake to believe “humanity” thinks, feels and experiences to a high degree of similarity. The fact is language shows that, as it diversified across the earth, humanity has a multitude of diverse ways of experiencing.

First of all, “…a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and perceive the world.” (page 7) […]

The author does not go as far as me, nor is he as blunt; I am interjecting much of my personal beliefs in here. Still, “…fundamental aspects of our thought are influenced by cultural conventions of our society, to a much greater extent than is fashionable to admit today….what we find ‘natural’ depends largely on the conventions we have been brought up on.” (page 233) There are clear echoes of Nietzsche in here.

The conclusion is that “habits of speech can create habits of mind.” So, language affects culture fundamentally. But, this is a reciprocal arrangement. Language changes due to cultural experience yet cultural experience is affected by language.

Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass
Stuart Hindmarsh, Philosophical Overview

In Through the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher addresses the question as to whether the natural language we speak will have an influence on our thought and our perception. He focuses on perceptions, and specifically the perceptions of colours and perceptions of spatial relations. He is very dismissive of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and varieties of linguistic relativity which would say that if the natural language we speak is of a certain sort then we cannot have certain types of concepts or experiences. For example, a proponent of this type of linguistic relativity might say that if your language does not have a word for the colour blue then you cannot perceive something as blue. Nonetheless, Deutscher argues that the natural language we speak will have some influence on how we think and see the world, giving several examples, many of which are fascinating. However, I believe that several of his arguments that dismiss views like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are based on serious misunderstandings.

The view that language is the medium in which conceptual thought takes place has a long history in philosophy, and this is the tradition out of which the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was developed. […]

It is important to note that in this tradition the relation between language and conceptual thought is not seen as one in which the ability to speak a language is one capacity and the ability to think conceptually a completely separate faculty, and in which the first merely has a causal influence on the other. It is rather the view that the ability to speak a language makes it possible to think conceptually and that the ability to speak a language makes it possible to have perceptions of certain kinds, such as those in which what is perceived is subsumed under a concept. For example, it might be said that without language it is possible to see a rabbit but not possible to see it as a rabbit (as opposed to a cat, a dog, a squirrel, or any other type of thing). Thus conceptual thinking and perceptions of these types are seen not as separate from language and incidentally influenced by it but dependent on language and taking their general form from language. This does not mean that speech or writing must be taking place every time a person thinks in concepts or has these types of perception, though. To think that it must is a misunderstanding essentially the same as a common misinterpretation of Kant, which I will discuss in more detail in a later post.

While I take this to be the idea behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Deutscher evidently interprets that hypothesis as a very different kind of view. According to this view, the ability to speak a language is separate from the ability to think conceptually and from the ability to have the kinds of perceptions described above and it merely influences such thought and perception from without. Furthermore, it is not a relation in which language makes these types of thought and perception possible but one in which thought and perception are actually constrained by language. This interpretation runs through all of Deutscher’s criticisms of linguistic relativity. […]

Certainly many questionable assertions have been made based on the premise that language conditions the way that we think. Whorf apparently made spurious claims about Hopi conceptions of time. Today a great deal of dubious material is being written about the supposed influence of the internet and hypertext media on the way that we think. This is mainly inspired by Marshall McLuhan but generally lacking his originality and creativity. Nevertheless, there have been complex and sophisticated versions of the idea that the natural language that we speak conditions our thought and our perceptions, and these deserve serious attention. There are certainly more complex and sophisticated versions of these ideas than the crude caricature that Deutscher sets up and knocks down. Consequently, I don’t believe that he has given convincing reasons for seeing the relations between language and thought as limited to the types of relations in the examples he gives, interesting though they may be. For instance, he notes that the aboriginal tribes in question would have to always keep in mind where the cardinal directions were and consequently in this sense the language would require them to think a certain way.

The History and Science Behind the Color Blue
by staff, Dunn-Edwards Paints

If you think about it, there is not a lot of blue in nature. Most people do not have blue eyes, blue flowers do not occur naturally without human intervention, and blue animals are rare — bluebirds and bluejays only live in isolated areas. The sky is blue — or is it? One theory suggests that before humans had words for the color blue, they actually saw the sky as another color. This theory is supported by the fact that if you never describe the color of the sky to a child, and then ask them what color it is, they often struggle to describe its color. Some describe it as colorless or white. It seems that only after being told that the sky is blue, and after seeing other blue objects over a period of time, does one start seeing the sky as blue. […]

Scientists generally agree that humans began to see blue as a color when they started making blue pigments. Cave paintings from 20,000 years ago lack any blue color, since as previously mentioned, blue is rarely present in nature. About 6,000 years ago, humans began to develop blue colorants. Lapis, a semiprecious stone mined in Afghanistan, became highly prized among the Egyptians. They adored the bright blue color of this mineral. They used chemistry to combine the rare lapis with other ingredients, such as calcium and limestone, and generate other saturated blue pigments. It was at this time that an Egyptian word for “blue” emerged.

Slowly, the Egyptians spread their blue dyes throughout the word, passing them on to the Persians, Mesoamericans and Romans. The dyes were expensive — only royalty could afford them. Thus, blue remained rare for many centuries, though it slowly became popular enough to earn its own name in various languages.

Cognitive Variations:
Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the Human Mind
by Geoffrey Lloyd
Kindle Locations 178-208

Standard colour charts and Munsell chips were, of course, used in the research to order to ensure comparability and to discount local differences in :he colours encountered in the natural environment. But their use carried major risks, chiefly that of circularity. The protocols of the enquiry presupposed the differences that were supposed to be under investigation and to that extent and in that regard the investigators just got out what they had put in. That is to say, the researchers presented their interviewees with materials that already incorporated the differentiations the researchers themselves were interested in. Asked to identify, name, or group different items, the respondents’ replies were inevitably matched against those differentiations. Of course the terms in which the replies were made-in the natural languages the respondents used-must have borne some relation to the differences perceived, otherwise they would not have been used in replying to the questions (assuming, as we surely may, that the questions were taken seriously and that the respondents were doing their honest best). But it was assumed that what the respondents were using in their replies were essentially colour terminologies, distinguishing hues, and that assumption was unfounded in general, and in certain cases can be shown to be incorrect.

It was unfounded in general because there are plenty of natural languages in which the basic discrimination relates not to hues, but to luminosities. Ancient Greek is one possible example. Greek colour classifications are rich and varied and were, as we shall see, a matter of dispute among the Greeks themselves. They were certainly capable of drawing distinctions between hues. I have already given one example. When Aristotle analyses the rainbow, where it is clearly hue that separates one end of the spectrum from the other, he identifies three colours using terms that correspond, roughly, to ‘red’ ‘green’, and ‘blue’, with a fourth, corresponding to ‘yellow’, which he treats (as noted) as a mere ‘appearance’ between ‘red’ and ‘green’. But the primary contrariety that figures in ancient Greek (including in Aristotle) is between Ieukon and melan, which usually relate not to hues, so much as to luminosity. Leukos, for instance, is used of the sun and of water, where it is clearly not the case that they share, or were thought to share, the same hue. So the more correct translation of that pair is often ‘bright’ or ‘light’ and ‘dark’, rather than ‘white’ and ‘black’.’ ^ Berlin and Kay (1969: 70) recognized the range of application of Ieukon, yet still glossed the term as ‘white’. Even more strangely they interpreted glaukon as ‘black’. That term is particularly context-dependent, but when Aristotle (On the Generation of Animals 779″z6, b34 ff.) tells us that the eyes of babies are glaukon, that corresponds to ‘blue’ where melon, the usual term for ‘black’ or rather ‘dark’, is represented as its antonym, rather than its synonym, as Berlin and Kay would need it to be.

So one possible source of error in the Berlin and Kay methodology was the privileging of hue over luminosity. But that still does not get to the bottom of the problem, which is that in certain cases the respondents were answering in terms whose primary connotations were not colours at all. The Hanunoo had been studied before Berlin and Kay in a pioneering article by Conklin (1955), and Lyons (1995; 1999) has recently reopened the discussion of this material.? First Conklin observed that the Hanunoo have no word for colour as such. But (as noted) that does not mean, of course, that they are incapable of discriminating between different hues or luminosities. To do so they use four terms, mabiru, malagti, rtarara, and malatuy, which may be thought to correspond, roughly, to ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘red’, and ‘green’. Hanunoo way then classified as a s:age 3 language, in Berlin and Kay’s taxonomy, one that discriminates between four basic colour terms, indeed those very four. 7 Cf. also Lucy 1992: ch. 5, who similarly criticizes taking purportedly colour terms out of context.

Yet, according to Conklin, chromatic variation was not the primary basis for differentiation of those four terms at all. Rather the two principal dimensions of variation are (T) lightness versus darkness, and (2) wetness versus dryness, or freshness (succulence) versus desiccation. siccation. A third differentiating factor is indelibility versus fadedness, referring to permanence or impermanence, rather than to hue as such.

Berlin and Kay only got to their cross-cultural universals by ignoring ing (they may even sometimes have been unaware of) the primary connotations of the vocabulary in which the respondents expressed their answers to the questions put to them. That is not to say, of course, that the members of the societies concerned are incapable of distinguishing colours whether as hues or as luminosities. That would be to make the mistake that my first philosophical observation was designed to forestall. You do not need colour terms to register colour differences. Indeed Berlin and Kay never encountered-certainly they never reported-a society where tie respondents simply had nothing to say when questioned about how their terms related to what they saw on the Munsell chips. But the methodology was flawed in so far as it was assumed that the replies given always gave access to a classification of colour, when sometimes colours were not the primary connotations of the vocabulary used at all.’

The Language Myth:
Why Language Is Not an Instinct
by Vyvyan Evans
pp. 204-206

The neo-Whorfians have made four main criticisms of this research tradition as it relates to linguistic relativity. 33 First off, the theoretical construct of the ‘basic colour term’ is based on English. It is then assumed that basic colour terms – based on English – correspond to an innate biological specification. But the assumption that basic colour terms – based on English – correspond to universal semantic constraints, due to our common biology, biases the findings in advance. The ‘finding’ that other languages also have basic colour terms is a consequence of a self-fufilling prophecy: as English has been ‘found’ to exhibit basic colour terms, all other languages will too. But this is no way to investigate putative cross-linguistic universals; it assumes, much like Chomsky did, that colour in all of the world’s languages will be, underlyingly, English-like. And as we shall see, other languages often do things in startlingly different ways.

Second, the linguistic analysis Berlin and Kay conducted was not very rigorous – to say the least. For most of the languages they ‘examined’, Berlin and Kay relied on second-hand sources, as they had no first-hand knowledge of the languages they were hoping to find basic colour terms in. To give you a sense of the problem, it is not even clear whether many of the putative basic colour terms Berlin and Kay ‘uncovered’, were from the same lexical class; for instance, in English, the basic colour terms – white, black, red and so on – are all adjectives. Yet, for many of the world’s languages, colour expressions often come from different lexical classes. As we shall see shortly, one language, Yélî Dnye, draws its colour terms from several lexical classes, none of which is adjectives. And the Yélî language is far from exceptional in this regard. The difficulty here is that, without a more detailed linguistic analysis, there is relatively little basis for the assumption that what is being compared involves comparable words. And, that being the case, can we still claim that we are dealing with basic colour terms?

Third, many other languages do not conceptualise colour as an abstract domain independent of the objects that colour happens to be a property of. For instance, some languages do not even have a word corresponding to the English word colour – as we shall see later. This shows that colour is often not conceptualised as a stand-alone property in the way that it is in English. In many languages, colour is treated in combination with other surface properties. For English speakers this might sound a little odd. But think about the English ‘colour’ term roan: this encodes a surface pattern, rather than strictly colour – in this case, brown interspersed with white, as when we describe a horse as ‘roan’. Some languages combine colour with other properties, such as dessication, as in the Old Germanic word saur, which meant yellow and dry. The problem, then, is that in languages with relatively simple colour technology − arguably the majority of the world’s languages − lexical systems that combine colour with other aspects of an object’s appearance are artificially excluded from being basic colour terms – as English is being used as the reference point. And this, then, distorts the true picture of how colour is represented in language, as the analysis only focuses on those linguistic features that correspond to the ‘norm’ derived from English. 34

And finally, the ‘basic colour term’ project is flawed, in so far as it constitutes a riposte to linguistic relativity; as John Lucy has tellingly observed, linguistic relativity is the thesis that language influences non-linguistic aspects of thought: one cannot demonstrate that it is wrong by investigating the effect of our innate colour sense on language. 35 In fact, one has to demonstrate the reverse: that language doesn’t influence psychophysics (in the domain of colour). Hence, the theory of basic colour terms cannot be said to refute the principle of linguistic relativity as ironically, it wasn’t in fact investigating it.

The neo-Whorfian critique, led by John Lucy and others, argued that, at its core, the approach taken by Berlin and Kay adopted an unwarranted ethnocentric approach that biased findings in advance. And, in so doing, it failed to rule out the possibility that what other languages and cultures were doing was developing divergent semantic systems – rather than there being a single universal system – in the domain of colour, albeit an adaptation to a common human set of neurobiological constraints. By taking the English language in general, and in particular the culture of the English-speaking peoples – the British Isles, North America and the Antipodes – as its point of reference, it not only failed to establish what different linguistic systems – especially in non-western cultures – were doing, but led, inevitably, to the conclusion that all languages, even when strikingly diverse in terms of their colour systems, were essentially English-like. 36

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
by Iain McGilchrist
pp. 221-222

Consciousness is not the same as inwardness, although there can be no inwardness without consciousness. To return to Patricia Churchland’s statement that it is reasonable to identify the blueness of an object with its disposition to scatter electromagnetic waves preferentially at about 0.46μm, 52 to see it like this, as though from the outside, excluding the ‘subjective’ experience of the colour blue – as though to get the inwardness of consciousness out of the picture – requires a very high degree of consciousness and self-consciousness. The polarity between the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ points of view is a creation of the left hemisphere’s analytic disposition. In reality there can be neither absolutely, only a choice between a betweenness which acknowledges itself, and one which denies its own nature. By identifying blueness solely with the behaviour of electromagnetic particles one is not avoiding value, not avoiding betweenness, not avoiding one’s shadow being cast across the picture. One is using the inwardness of consciousness in a very specialised way to strive to empty itself as much as possible of value, of the self. The paradoxical result is an extremely partial, fragmented version of the colour blue, which is neither value-free nor independent of the self ‘s disposition towards its object.

p. 63

Another thought-provoking detail about sadness and the right hemisphere involves the perception of colour. Brain regions involved in conscious identification of colour are probably left-sided, perhaps because it involves a process of categorisation and naming; 288 however, it would appear that the perception of colour in mental imagery under normal circumstances activates only the right fusiform area, not the left, 289 and imaging studies, lesion studies and neuropsychological testing all suggest that the right hemisphere is more attuned to colour discrimination and perception. 290 Within this, though, there are hints that the right hemisphere prefers the colour green and the left hemisphere prefers the colour red (as the left hemisphere may prefer horizontal orientation, and the right hemisphere vertical – a point I shall return to in considering the origins of written language in Chapter 8). 291 The colour green has traditionally been associated not just with nature, innocence and jealousy but with – melancholy: ‘She pined in thought, / And with a green and yellow melancholy / She sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief ‘. 292

Is there some connection between the melancholy tendencies of the right hemisphere and the mediaeval belief that the left side of the body was dominated by black bile? Black bile was, of course, associated with melancholy (literally, Greek melan–, black ⊕ chole, bile) and was thought to be produced by the spleen, a left-sided organ. For the same reasons the term spleen itself was, from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century, applied to melancholy; though, as if intuiting that melancholy, passion, and sense of humour all came from the same place (in fact the right hemisphere, associated with the left side of the body), ‘spleen’ could also refer to each or any of these.

Note 291

‘There are hints from many sources that the left hemispheremay innately prefer red over green, just as it may prefer horizontal over vertical. I have already discussed thelanguage-horizontal connection. The connection between the left hemisphere and red is also indirect, but is supported by a remarkable convergence of observations from comparative neurology, which has shown appropriate asymmetries between both the hemispheres and even between the eyes (cone photoreceptor differencesbetween the eyes of birds are consistent with a greater sensitivity to movement and to red on the part of the righteye (Hart, 2000)) and from introspective studies over the millennia in three great religions that have all convergedin the same direction on an association between action, heat, red, horizontal, far etc and the right side of the body (i.e. the left cerebral hemisphere, given the decussation between cerebral hemisphere and output) compared withinaction, cold, green, vertical, near etc and the left side/ right hemisphere respectively’ (Pettigrew, 2001, p. 94).

Louder Than Words:
The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning
by Benjamin K. Bergen
pp. 57-58

We perceive objects in the real world in large part through their color. Are the embodied simulations we construct while understanding language in black and white, or are they in color? It seems like the answer should be obvious. When you imagine a yellow trucker hat, you feel the subjective experience of yellowness that looks a lot like yellow as you would perceive it in the real world. But it turns out that color is actually a comparatively fickle visual property of both perceived and imagined objects. Children can’t use color to identify objects until about a year of age, much later than they can use shape. And even once they acquire this ability, as adults, people’s memory for color is substantially less accurate than their memory for shape, and they have to pay closer attention to detect changes in the color of objects than in their shape or location.

And yet, with all this going against it, color still seeps into our embodied simulations, at least briefly. One study looking at color used the same sentence-picture matching method we’ve been talking about. People read sentences that implied particular colors for objects. For instance, John looked at the steak on his plate implies a cooked and therefore appropriately brown steak, while John looked at the steak in the butcher’s window implies an uncooked and therefore red steak. In the key trials, participants then saw a picture of the same object, which could either match or mismatch the color implied by the sentence— that is, the steak could be red or brown. Once again, this method produced an interaction. Curiously, though, the result was slower reactions to matching-color images (unlike the faster reactions to matching shape and orientation images in the previous studies). One explanation for why this effect appears in the opposite direction is that perhaps people processing sentences only mentally simulate color briefly and then suppress color to represent shape and orientation. This might lead to slower responses to a matching color when an image is subsequently presented.

pp. 190-192

Another example of how languages make people think differently comes from color perception. Languages have different numbers of color categories, and those categories have different boundaries. For instance, in English, we make a categorical distinction between reds and pinks— we have different names for them, and we judge colors to be one or the other (we don’t think of pinks as a type of red or vice versa— they’re really different categories). And because our language makes this distinction, when we use English and we want to identify something by its color, we have to attend to where in the pink-red range it falls. But other languages don’t make this distinction. For instance, Wobé, a language spoken in Ivory Coast, only has one color category that spans English pinks and reds. So to speak Wobé, you don’t need to pay as close attention to colors in the pink-red range to identify them; all you have to do is recognize that they’re in that range, retrieve the right color term, and you’re set.

We can see this phenomenon in reverse when we look at the blue range. For the purposes of English, light blues and dark blues are all blues; perceptibly different shades, no doubt, but all blues nonetheless. Russian, however, splits blue apart in the way that we separate red and pink. There are two distinct color categories in Russian for our blues: goluboy (light blues) and siniy (dark blues). For the purposes of English, you don’t have to worry about what shade of blue something is to describe it successfully. Of course you can be more specific if you want; you can describe a shade as powder blue or deep blue, or any variety of others. But you don’t have to. In Russian, however, you do. To describe the colors of Cal or UCLA, for example, there would be no way in Russian to say they’re both blue; you’d have to say that Cal is siniy and UCLA is goluboy. And to say that, you’d need to pay attention to the shades of blue that each school wears. The words the language makes available mandate that you pay attention to particular perceptual details in order to speak.

The flip side of thinking for speaking is thinking for understanding. Each time someone describes something as siniy or goluboy in Russian, there’s a little bit more information there than when the same things are described as blue in English. So if you think about it, saying that the sky is blue in English is actually less specific than its equivalent would be in Russian— some languages provide more information about certain things each time you read or hear about them.

The fact that different languages encode different information in everyday words could have a variety of effects on how people understand those languages. For one, when a language systematically encodes something, that might lead people to regularly encode that detail as part of their embodied simulations. Russian comprehenders might construct more detailed representations of the shades of blue things than their English-comprehending counterparts. Pormpuraawans might understand language about locations by mentally representing cardinal directions in space while their English-comprehending counterparts use ego-centered mental representations to do the same thing.

Or an alternative possibility is that people might ultimately understand language about the given domain in the same way, regardless of the language, but, in order to get there, they might have to do more mental gymnastics. To get from the word blue in English to the color of the sky might take longer than to go there directly from goluboy in Russian. Or, to take another example, to construct an egocentric idea of where the bay windows are relative to you might be easier when you hear on your right than to your north.

A third possibility, and one that has caught a lot of people’s interest, is that there may be longer-term and more pervasive effects of linguistic differences on people’s cognition, even outside of language. Perhaps, for instance, Pormpuraawan speakers, by dint of years and years of having to pay attention to the cardinal directions, learn to constantly monitor them, even when they’re not using language; perhaps more so than English speakers. Likewise, perhaps the color categories your language provides affect not merely what you attend to and think about when using color words but also what differences you perceive among colors and how easily you distinguish between colors. This is the idea of linguistic relativism, that the language you speak can affect the way you think. The debate about linguistic relativism is a hot one, but the jury is still out on how and when language affects nonlinguistic thought.

All of this is to say that individual languages are demanding of their speakers. To speak and understand a language, you have to think, and languages, to some extent, dictate what things you ought to think, what things you ought to pay attention to, and how you should break the world up into categories. As a result, the routine patterns of thought that an English speaker engages in will differ from those of a Russian or Wobé or Pormpuraaw speaker. Native speakers of these languages are also native thinkers of these languages.

The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols
by Genevieve von Petzinger
Kindle Locations 479-499

Not long after the people of Sima de los Huesos began placing their dead in their final resting place, another group of Homo heidelbergensis, this time in Zambia, began collecting colored minerals from the landscape around them. They not only preferred the color red, but also collected minerals ranging in hue from yellow and brown to black and even to a purple shade with sparkling flecks in it. Color symbolism— associating specific colors with particular qualities, ideas, or meanings— is widely recognized among modern human groups. The color red, in particular, seems to have almost universal appeal. These pieces of rock show evidence of grinding and scraping, as though they had been turned into a powder.

This powdering of colors took place in a hilltop cave called Twin Rivers in what is present-day Zambia between 260,000 and 300,000 years ago. 10 At that time, the environment in the region was very similar to what we find there today: humid and semitropical with expansive grasslands broken by stands of short bushy trees. Most of the area’s colorful rocks, which are commonly known as ochre, contain iron oxide, which is the mineral pigment later used to make the red paint on the walls of caves across Ice Age Europe and beyond. In later times, ochre is often associated with nonutilitarian activities, but since the people of Twin Rivers lived before the emergence of modern humans (Homo sapiens, at 200,000 years ago), they were not quite us yet. If this site were, say, 30,000 years old, most anthropologists would agree that the collection and preparation of these colorful minerals had a symbolic function, but because this site is at least 230,000 years older, there is room for debate.

Part of this uncertainty is owing to the fact that ground ochre is also useful for utilitarian reasons. It can act as an adhesive, say, for gluing together parts of a tool. It also works as an insect repellent and in the tanning of hides, and may even have been used for medicinal purposes, such as stopping the bleeding of wounds.

If the selection of the shades of ochre found at this site were for some mundane purpose, then the color shouldn’t matter, right? Yet the people from the Twin Rivers ranged out across the landscape to find these minerals, often much farther afield than necessary if they just required something with iron oxide in it. Instead, they returned to very specific mineral deposits, especially ones containing bright-red ochre, then carried the ochre with them back to their home base. This use of ochre, and the preference for certain colors, particularly bright red, may have been part of a much earlier tradition, and it is currently one of the oldest examples we have of potential symbolism in an ancestral human species.

Kindle Locations 669-683

Four pieces of bright-red ochre collected from a nearby mineral source were also found in the cave. 6 Three of the four pieces had been heated to at least 575 ° F in order to convert them from yellow to red. The inhabitants of Skhul had prospected the landscape specifically for yellowish ochre with the right chemical properties to convert into red pigment. The selective gathering of materials and their probable heat-treatment almost certainly indicates a symbolic aspect to this practice, possibly similar to what we saw with the people at Pinnacle Point about 30,000 years earlier. […]

The combination of the oldest burial with grave goods; the preference for bright-red ochre and the apparent ability to heat-treat pigments to achieve it; and what are likely some of the earliest pieces of personal adornment— all these details make the people from Skhul good candidates for being our cognitive equals. And they appear at least 60,000 years before the traditional timing of the “creative explosion.”

Kindle Locations 1583-1609

There is something about the color red. It can represent happiness, anger, good luck, danger, blood, heat, sun, life, and death. Many cultures around the world attach a special significance to red. Its importance is also reflected in many of the languages spoken today. Not all languages include words for a range of colors, and the simplest systems recognize only white and black, or light and dark, but whenever they do include a third color word in their language, it is always red.

This attachment to red seems to be embedded deep within our collective consciousness. Not only did the earliest humans have a very strong preference for brilliant red ochre (except for the inhabitants of Sai Island, in Sudan, who favored yellow), but even earlier ancestral species were already selecting red ochre over other shades. It may also be significant (although we don’t know how) that the pristine quartzite stone tool found in the Pit of Bones in Spain was of an unusual red hue.

This same preference for red is evident on the walls of caves across Europe during the Ice Age. But by this time, artists had added black to their repertoire and the vast majority of paintings were done in one or both of these colors. I find it intriguing that two of the three most common colors recognized and named across all languages are also the ones most often used to create the earliest art. The third shade, though well represented linguistically, is noticeably absent from Ice Age art. Of all the rock art sites currently known in Europe, only a handful have any white paint in them. Since many of the cave walls are a fairly light gray or a translucent yellowy white, it’s possible that the artists saw the background as representing this shade, or that its absence could have been due to the difficulty in obtaining white pigment: the small number of sites that do have white images all used kaolin clay to create this color. (Since kaolin clay was not as widely available as the materials for making red and black paint, it is certainly possible that scarcity was a factor in color choice.)

While the red pigment was created using ochre, the black paint was made using either ground charcoal or the mineral manganese oxide. The charcoal was usually sourced from burnt wood, though in some instances burnt bone was used instead. Manganese is found in mineral deposits, sometimes in the same vicinity as ochre. Veins of manganese can also occasionally be seen embedded right in the rock at some cave sites. Several other colors do appear on occasion— yellow and brown are the most common— though they appear at only about 10 percent of sites.

There is also a deep purple color that I’ve only ever seen in cave art in northern Spain, and even there it’s rare. La Pasiega (the site where I saw the grinding stone) has a series of paintings in this shade of violet in one section of the cave. Mixed in with more common red paintings, there are several purple signs— dots, stacked lines, rectangular grills— along with a single purple bison that was rendered in great detail (see fig. 4 in insert). Eyes, muzzle, horns— all have been carefully depicted, and yet the purple shade is not an accurate representation of a bison’s coloring. Did the artist use this color simply because it’s what he or she had at hand? Or could it be that the color of the animal was being dictated by something other than a need for this creature to be true to life? We know these artists had access to brown and black pigments, but at many sites they chose to paint animals in shades of red or yellow, or even purple, like the bison here at La Pasiega. These choices are definitely suggestive of there being some type of color symbolism at work, and it could even be that creating accurate replicas of real-life animals was not the main goal of these images.