The Conscience of Color from Chemistry to Culture


We interrupt our series on Neural Science and Vision to share a delightful post from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. The Conscience of Color, from Chemistry to Culture opens with this delectable quote: “Colors are not possessions; they are the intimate revelations of an energy field… light waves with mathematically precise lengths… deep, resonant mysteries with boundless subjectivity… Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color.”

The centerpiece of Popova’s post, and the source from which the sound bites above originate, is a book authored by Ellen Meloy titled The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky.

The first chapter of Turquoise, The Deeds and Sufferings of Light, is an absolute gem. Meloy writes: “Colors challenge language to encompass them. (It cannot; there are more sensations than words for them. Our eyes are far ahead of tongues.) … When someone says they feel color, the serene caress of jade or the acidic bite of yellow, do not accuse them of using illegal drugs. In primitive life forms the eye began as a light-sensitive depression in the skin; the sense of sight likely evolved from the sense of touch.

The complex human eye harvests light. It perceives seven to ten million colors through a synaptic flash: one-tenth of a second from retina to brain. Homo sapiens gangs up 70 percent of its sense receptors solely for vision, to anticipate danger and recognize reward, but also – more so – for beauty … The eye spreads light softly in the retina, across blood and long-stemmed nerves that resemble frilled balloons or leggy trees of bladder kelp. These nerves, called ganglion and bipolar cells, fled the cranium; they are actually part of the brain that now live in the eyes.”

(Color wheel based on the classification system of the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882.)

Meloy concludes: “For a homebody surrounded by the familiar or a traveler exploring the strange, there can be no better guide to a place than the weight of its air, the behavior of its light, the shape of its water, the textures of rock and feather, leaf and fur, and the way that humans bless, mark, or obliterate them. Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.”

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