Impossible Colors

In science fiction, aliens have the ability to perceive the world in more colors that humans, giving them a more “colorful” world, much as humans see a more “colorful” world than animals, or the minority of humans who have varying forms of color blindness. But what if it were possible for humans to see and perceive “extra” colors of this type? It’s been claimed that, using a special eye-tracker device, one can see “impossible” colors, colors that one would never see under normal circumstances:

In 1983, Hewitt D. Crane and Thomas P. Piantanida performed tests using an eye-tracker device that had a field of a vertical red stripe adjacent to a vertical green stripe, or several narrow alternating red and green stripes (or in some cases, yellow and blue instead). The device could track involuntary movements of one eye (there was a patch over the other eye) and adjust mirrors so the image would follow the eye and the boundaries of the stripes were always on the same places on the eye’s retina; the field outside the stripes was blanked with occluders. Under such conditions, the edges between the stripes seemed to disappear (perhaps due to edge-detecting neurons becoming fatigued) and the colors flowed into each other in the brain’s visual cortex, overriding the opponency mechanisms and producing not the color expected from mixing paints or from mixing lights on a screen, but new colors entirely, which are not in the CIE 1931 color space, either in its real part or in its imaginary parts. For red-and-green, some saw an even field of the new color; some saw a regular pattern of just-visible green dots and red dots; some saw islands of one color on a background of the other color. Some of the volunteers for the experiment reported that afterwards, they could still imagine the new colors for a period of time.

This may well be the “power of suggestion” in action, but suppose it wasn’t. Suppose you really could trick one’s eyes into sending a signal to one’s brain which would be perceived as a new color. In that case, when bionic eyes are first created, it would be possible to send these colors into the minds of the wearer rather freely. They could be inserted into the wearer’s perception of the real world, giving more “colors” to the visual spectrum or even allowing the wearer to “see” the new colors as ultraviolet light.* In practice few will do this, as they will want to see the world as others see it. Observe that while it is trivially easy for a programmer to invert the spectrum in the world of video games, this is rarely done. Thus, for the first wearers of bionic eyes, the new colors will be rarely seen, experienced mostly in VR environments designed specifically for those able to see the new colors.

It will be different, however, in the far-er future where everyone has bionic or semi-bionic eyes. In this case, including the new colors in virtual reality will become the rule rather than the exception. In the case of Vatworld,(see Posthumanity, pg 261-266) or if our descendants are emulated minds, people/ems would see the new colors routinely. They would connote “artificiality,” seen frequently in “artificial” settings and rarely in “natural” settings. Additionally, they would connote the present era, as they would not be seen in historical images or “artifacts.” As we see the past in black and white photographs, they would see it only in the “real” colors. However, while our films usually(though not always) are in color even if set in the past, theirs will mostly lack the new colors.

All this is assuming, of course, that the story of the new colors is true. It probably isn’t.

*Some people are able to see ultraviolet light today, but they do not perceive it as a new color, rather they see it as blue or violet.

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