For many, the wide variety of colors the eye sees is a typical, everyday occurrence – few stop to examine the science that goes behind the eye’s ability to perceive color.
But for psychology major Jenni Gustafson, focusing on how she and others perceive colors has proved to be far from ordinary.
“I’ve just been able to notice and better understand everyday psychological phenomena in regards to the visual system,” she said. “For instance, why the color of a road sign is yellow versus another color – our eyes are very sensitive to the color yellow.”
The fourth-year senior has spent about 10 hours per week this semester assisting psychology professor Patrick Monnier in his ongoing color vision research.
Working as a subject in visual trials each week, Gustafson has gained understanding of the importance of colors in her world.
Gustafson is one of several undergraduates who help Monnier in studies involving psychophysics, or measuring the appearance of colors using normal human observations.
“Using quantitative measurements,” Monnier said. “I try to figure out how the brain is wired up to allow you to see colors.”
Part of Monnier’s research concerns how color impacts attention.
“We associate red with danger, green with everything being OK, and orange as a warning color,” he said.
Monnier explained that identical colors appear completely different in various contexts.
“This is a creation of your brain,” he said. “It’s happening for some reason in your brain. To me, that’s probably the most shocking aspect of the topic that I study.”
For example, Monnier used the problems of choosing a color of paint in a department store based on the tiny samples displayed on sample cards. He explained that there is usually a big difference in the color once it covers a house wall.
They are the same color physically, but things like size, the furniture around a living room and the type of illumination have a huge effect on how people perceive the paint.
“If we understand those shifts, then I could probably create some type of system to compensate,” Monnier said. “Then I could tell you more accurately what that particular paint will look like in your room.”
Monnier wants to find out how small of a color difference humans can perceive, whether humans process these colors, and if humans develop a system that allows us to pick colors in a way that maximizes the information we convey.
For Gustafson, the research experience with Monnier has been beneficial on a personal level.
“Being involved with research as an undergrad is crucial for getting into graduate school,” she said. “I also think it is beneficial getting to work with your professors on a closer level and focusing on a specific area of information.”
Staff writer Brandon Owens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.