Researchers have discovered that while people are able to tell millions of colors apart, they have difficulty remembering specific shades because the brain has a tendency to store color information based on basic hues.

Led by Jonathan Flombaum, the researchers were able to counter standard assumptions regarding memory, showing for the first time that people's color memories are guided by biases favoring "best" versions of basic colors over the actual colors seen in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

For example, ultramarine, cobalt, navy and azure are all hues but the brain stores them as simply "blue" in the memory. The brain's tendency of categorizing colors thus leads to people more accurately remembering colors if what they saw is a good example of a certain category.

For the study, the researchers tasked subjects with looking at a color with 180 different hues and finding the "best" examples of yellow, orange, purple, green, pink and blue they can find. With a different group of subjects, the researchers conducted a memory experiment where participants viewed a colored square for a tenth of a second and were asked to identify the color they saw from the color wheel.

When matching hues, both groups of subjects had the tendency of choosing "best" colors as the basic hues representative of a color. However, the bias was more evident with the second group tasked with identifying hues they were shown for just a tenth of a second.

According to Flombaum, the brain has a trick when it comes to storing information about colors.

"We tag the color with a coarse label. That then makes our memories more biased, but still pretty useful," he explained.

The results of the study have broad implications on understanding visual working memory. Flombaum said people usually remember the things they see in a prototypical manner. It's not that the brain does not have the capacity for remembering millions of colors but that the mind instead chooses to reconcile common details into a more limited category driven by language. This is why something teal may be remembered as being more "green" or more "blue," while something coral will be tagged as more "orange" or more "pink," for instance, and the category assigned to a color affects what an individual thinks they saw.

Gi-Yeul Bae, Sarah Allred and Maria Olkkonen also contributed to the study.

Photo: Dean Hochman | Flickr

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