What’s your favourite colour?

It comes across as a conversation starter. Something you’d ask after a period of awkward silence on a first date. It’s never really very relevant, except in those facebook personality quizzes. Favourite colours are a bit of an enigma.

Colours themselves aren’t exactly what they seem. A tomato, for example, isn’t actually red. Tomatoes just happen to absorb other colours and reflect red light (or enemic pink if you’re eating a big mac). So what we percieve as colour is just a reflection of a certain wavelength of light.

Fun Fact:The sky is blue because molecules in the atmosphere reflect blue-violet wavelengths more commonly than any other wavelength.

Colours themselves all originate from three primary colours: blue, yellow, and red. In the retinas of our eyes we have special cells called cones, which decipher these colours in pairs of three. This process is known as the Young-Helmholtz trichromatic theory.

Not so Fun Fact: Colourblindness is usually the result of one or more of the three types of cones malfunctioning. Monochromatic vision is the result of two types of cones malfunctioning and Dichromatic vision is the result of one type of cone malfunctioning.

A second, complimentary theory of colour vision is opponent-process theory, which concerns the activity of neural impulses in the brain. Opponent-process explains how we sometimes see afterimages after staring at an image for a long period of time. In the brain, each colour has an opponent (red-green, yellow-blue, and white-black). Certain neurons are triggered “on” by the colour red and “off” by the colour green. When we stare at one colour for a long period of time, the neuron which is triggered can tire, and so when we look at a white surface (white contains all colours) we see the “opponent” colour of what we were just staring at. 

Look at the shamrock for around 60 seconds, then look at a blank piece of paper or a blank screen. You should see an “afterimage” caused by the tiring of colour-processing neurons in the thalamus.

For each of our four other senses, having a favourite sensation is a little absurd. A specific sound, taste, smell or feeling that one person values above all other sounds, tastes, smells or feelings is a little unusual. Yet having a favourite colour is perfectly normal. Could this have something to do with colour representing personality? Facebook quizzes and certain branches of psychology might tell you that that’s the truth. However, the more likely scenario is that you’ve subconsciously aligned your favourite and least favourite colours with your likes and dislikes. For instance, blue itself has no significance, but when you consider that it’s the colour of your favourite sports team or the colour of water (the basis for life), your perception of it changes.

Our brains are wired to become more alert at the sight of red (the colour of blood) but the meaning that we give to the colour red is arbitrary, a product of the multitude of colourful influences we experience on a daily basis. Humans project meaning onto colour, not the other way around. A favourite colour might not define who you are, but it does give a little bit of insight into how you see the world. 

Personally, I don’t really have a favourite colour. I don’t like to impose my own hierarchical structure on a naturally ambiguous spectrum. 


P.S Just kidding, it’s red.

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