Color Perception Switches Sides In Brain

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Scientists have known for years that people categorize colors using the left side of their brains, but a new study reveals that before toddlers know the names of colors, they use the right side of their brains to categorize them. Anna Franklin of the University of Surrey talks with Andrea Seabrook about the study.


Now, a question that's plagued many an art museum visitor, what's the difference between the artist who smears paint on a canvas and a toddler with finger paints? It turns out, when they're choosing their colors, the toddler and the artist are using different sides of their brains. It's Science Out of the Box.

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SEABROOK: Anna Franklin runs the Baby Lab at the University of Surrey, and she's the principal researcher of a new study published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She joins us now from England. Anna Franklin, welcome to the program.

Dr. ANNA FRANKLIN (Department of Psychology, University of Surrey): Thank you very much.

SEABROOK: What's it like inside the Baby Lab? It sounds like kids walking around with diodes on their heads or something like that.

Dr. FRANKLIN: Yeah. It sounds a little bit gruesome, doesn't it?

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Dr. FRANKLIN: And it's not a tool. It's basically a large room. We have a play area for the children that come in, and then we've basically got our computer monitors set-up where we show infants and children different kinds of color tasks. So, we make all our task fun, and we make them into games about color. And there's lots of cartoons in between things to make it fun and friendly. So we've got an eye tracker which allowed us to record infants' and toddlers' eye movements.


Dr. FRANKLIN: So we can see what they notice and they're seeing and how quickly they notice it and what kind of things they scan when they're looking at things. And there's a phrase, which is the eyes are a window to the brain. So actually, eye trackers can be very useful for understanding what kind of cognitive process is it going on in a kid's mind.

SEABROOK: Uh huh. So first off, just to understand what's going on in my brain when I see two different colors, say green and blue?

Dr. FRANKLIN: So, there's lots of different processes going on when you discriminate color. And what we're interested in is your categorical response to color, and this is where you're better at telling the difference between two colors, if they belong to a different color category such as a blue and a green, than if they belong to the same color category such as two greens. In adults, this effect, where you're most sensitive to different category color differences, that is done by the left side of your brain. Now, the left side of your brain is where most language functions are.


Dr. FRANKLIN: And one argument is that, because language is on that side of the brain predominantly, that it reinforces the distinction between the two colors.

SEABROOK: OK. So what's happening in a toddler's brain? The child who hasn't learned the name of colors yet.

Dr. FRANKLIN: OK. So, we've tested toddlers who are learning the words for color, and what we found was that for the toddlers who don't know the words, then their category effect was stronger in the right side of the brain. And once they learn the words for blue and green, it switches over to the left side of the brain. So in a nut shell, learning the word for a color changes the way in which your brain processes that color.

SEABROOK: I just find that so fascinating because it means, right, that learning a language changes your brain and not the other way around.


SEABROOK: Like your brain isn't coming up with words for things around you. The words for things around you are changing your brain.

Dr. FRANKLIN: Yes, so it's evidence that, basically, language can affect the way in which our brain processes things. It taps into this theory called linguistic relativity, that language shapes the way in which you see and act upon the world. But what we're showing here is that language is changing the way in which your brain is actually processing color.

SEABROOK: Anna Franklin is a lecturer at the University of Surrey, where she also studies color naming and perception with kids. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. FRANKLIN: No, thank you for having me.

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