Does Your Brain Have Accurate Color Memory?

Does Your Brain Have Accurate Color Memory?


Is it possible to accurately remember a given colour? Rochester Institute of Technology Professor Mark Fairchild says "no"! Surprisingly, the brain is poorly equipped to remember colors. At best, Dr. Fairchild notes, "we can remember only general categories of color represented by significant color names. That's why there are so many sophisticated ways to name, organize, and measure color."

Here's a way to test your own colour memory. Close your eyes and imagine a red stop sign at a traffic intersection. It's a colour that drivers see every day in the European Union, United States, and many other places. Then open your eyes and see if you can identify the official stop sign colour from amongst the following imposters:

no, stop. Stop!

Make it stop red STOP

stop STOP!!!!!!!!

STOP sign No Stopping Now

stop! stopping traffic

Stop stop sign

emergency stop stop sign red

Stop Right There! stop

Stop! Stop it!

stop Stop Sign

Answer: According to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the official stop sign colour is HEX: #B01C2E, RGB: 176, 28, 46, Pantone® 187. It is the last colour in our lineup. Did you guess correctly?

Here's a second try, with fewer options. Close your eyes and imagine the giant yellow "M" of the McDonald's® franchise. It's an eye-catching yellow known the world over. Then open your eyes and see if you can identify the official McDonald's® yellow from amongst the following imposters:

Fake Lemon Golden Arches

Golden Arches 2 golden arch

Golden Arches my cup from mcdonald

McDonald´s Yellow mcdonalds arch

Answer: According to the McDonald's® Global Logo and Trademark Standards Reference Guide, the official yellow is HEX: #FCC917, RGB: 252, 201, 23, Pantone® 123. It is the first colour in our lineup. Did you guess correctly?

You can explore Dr. Fairchild's research on color perception and imaging at his website.

Cover img by franz66.

 
 

Craig ConleyAbout the Guest Author, Craig Conley
Website: http://www.OneLetterWords.com
Craig is an independent scholar and author of dozens of strange and unusual books, including a unicorn field guide and a dictionary of magic words. He also loves color: Prof. Oddfellow


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13 Comments
Showing 1 - 13 of 13 Comments
fascinating article. I was not even close to guessing the right stop sign color, and it's amazing because many of us typically see one multiple times per day.
Me too. Though new stop signs have more reflectivity than older ones, so maybe they appear brighter?
This is a pretty bogus test! The colors in the real world probably vary more than the examples that are close to each other above. When you figure in different monitors, there's no way this test is accurate. Ever noticed how different your monitor color can be compared to your Pantone swatches?

My picks were EXTREMELY close to the actual colors, but how do I really know I got it "right" given the variance in different monitors? "Golden Arches" and "Fake Lemon" are virtually the same color (Golden Arches is what I picked). And for the stop, my pick Stop! (#119282) and Stop Sign (#613991) are extremely close too.
regardless of the test's accuracy, i can attest to the brain's inability to retain colour accuracy. just ask yourself how well you would have done choosing the above colours correctly without the examples using the full millions of hexes available.
Hue is the most important characteristic for a colour.

If this was a 'real' world test of various colours in different lighting situations, it would be a fare better.

The swatches represented here are filtered/modified/profiled/displayed differently etc. by the digital process.

If I saw muddy mustard coloured golden arches at twilight, I'd know what I was looking at.

Don't eat the yellow snow!
regardless of the test's accuracy, i can attest to the brain's inability to retain colour accuracy. just ask yourself how well you would have done choosing the above colours correctly without the examples using the full millions of hexes available.

Especially since stop signs in real life are not solid colors at all, there must be at least hundreds of visually discernible reds on a stop sign at any given time
This is exactly why I carry swatches with me before laying down any money. ;)
I just got back from a trip to Time-Warner Cable. The stop signs in their lot were white on BLUE. Private signs can be any color.

I remember a color, what was it? ... aaauuuhhh. uhhh. Oh, That's it. RED!
Next time, I'll just guess the color made by Professor Oddfellow...
That is amazing. I didn't get any guess right. It is very interesting to think about how close our colour memory can be. Thanks for that.
I imagine stop signs as being a little brighter and slightly oranger than what you identify here as the true one. Anyway, I totally cracked up when you mentioned the MUTCD -- I read that thing for fun! In fact, I have spent much of my free time over the last few days looking through Ohio's MUTCD to see where it's different from the federal one.

By the way, you forgot to include my Highway Red in your list -- granted, it doesn't say "stop" in its name, but it's supposed to be the shade of red used on road signs (by my own estimation, used for my own purposes) including Stop signs.
I know if I need to remember a color, I have to describe it in words to myself: i.e. "a bluish deep red."
I hear what everyone is saying about the limitations of the test. Clearly, color is an interaction of pigment and light. So, here's my personal observation of this phenomenon: I cannot carry the subtle shades in memory to save my life. When I go to furniture and fabric showrooms, I ALWAYS I bring project swatches with me. Believe me, I've tried to do it strictly from memory, but I find I am wrong about 50% of the time. Pretty sure in school that's considered an F!!!

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