Memory is one of the primary ways humans make decisions and process the world around us. But more and more research is proving that our memories are not as accurate as we might think. Most recently, a team of scientists at John Hopkins recently found one way these inaccuracies manifest: our perception of color.
In its experiments, the team asked people to pick out what they considered the “best” color, from a wheel of 180 colors, to represent categories like pink, green, and blue. The subjects were then shown a color square for one tenth of a second. After the screen had gone blank, they were asked to pick out the color they’d seen from the wheel.
The subjects tended to chose colors closer to what they’d described as the “best” color for each category, and that bias became stronger when there had been a delay between viewing the original color and choosing its match. This meant that those who were using their working memory to pick the color were more likely to think of it as an archetype instead of the individual hue they’d actually seen.
The study’s leader, Jonathan Flombaum says that this phenomenon isn’t due to a lack of “space” in our memory to store color information, but rather a function of our brain’s tendency to rely on categorization. “We have very precise perception of color in the brain, but when we have to pick that color out in the world, there’s a voice that says, ‘It’s blue,’ and that affects what we end up thinking we saw,” Flombaum says. Visual memory can be very, very important in maintaining basic human systems–consider how the justice system uses criminal witnesses. Flombaum’s findings could help us to understand more crucial information about visual memory and its biases.