Isaac Newton defined the optical spectrum, but it was Goethe who first understood that color is more than just a physical problem. In Theory of Colours (1840), the German writer and painter examined phenomena like colored shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration, as well as the psychology of color, "marvelling at color's occurrences and meanings" and hoping to uncover its secrets. His great insight: color vision is shaped as much by human perception as it is by mechanical functioning.
He was a man of poetic sensibilities. He was also right. Today, neuroscientists believe that your eye doesn't see color at all -- your brain creates it and constructs it through neural processes. Different features including color, shape, location, and velocity are picked up by different regions of the brain and then integrated into a holistic perception of an object.
"This is a wonderful area where both science and philosophy have tended to really collaborate, have been in dialogue with each other. In many cases the leading philosophers have also been the leading scientists thinking about this," says the philosopher Alva Noë, a former fellow of the Oxford Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd