Impossible Colors and Where To Find Them

Updated on April 11, 2018

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The Hidden Colors We May Never See

In 1983, researchers reported an astonishing result to a study.

Using a machine that separated the vision of the eyes, researchers Hewitt Crane and Thomas Piantanida launched a study. The intent was to find out how the brain, when the filter of the human eyes is bypassed, interprets two opposing light waves. They showed various individuals vertical stripes of colors on opposite ends of the spectrum, like red and green.

The subjects, including one artist, reported that the colors mixed at their borders and became a color previously unknown. This insinuated the existence of new impossible colors.

This study has been called flawed in methodology many times. It relied on reports from individuals who may not have been familiar with different hues, and gave them no external reference to compare the colors they'd seen. A 2006 study attempting to repeat the results reported that, when supplied with a color wheel, subjects pointed out a murky brown color for the border of the red and green stripes.

This implies the subjects of the first study weren't seeing new colors, and either did not recognize the colors due to lack of familiarity with them, or their brains were deceived into believing the color seen was entirely new.

Researchers believe alleged 'new color' may have just been murky brown.
Researchers believe alleged 'new color' may have just been murky brown.

The Real Fake Colors

Chimerical colors are varieties of imaginary colors, colors that exist on the CIE 1931 color space. These are colors that are viewable only under abnormal circumstances. We know of their existence through mathematics, and because humans can see these colors under special conditions.

The types of chimerical colors are stygian, super-luminous, and hyperbolic. They are colors that are dark as black but colored, colors that are whiter than white but colored, and colors that are more saturated than is usually visible to the eyes, respectively. When looking at colors that are highly saturated or bright for 50-60 seconds, an after-image will form. By looking at white, black, or the relevant complimentary color, these chimerical colors are seen.

So, having established that humans can see other colors, why do researchers give the notion of other impossible colors a wide berth?

A guide chart for seeing chimerical colors.
A guide chart for seeing chimerical colors. | Source

The Curse of Trichromacy

The trichomatic visual system of humans means that we only see a certain range of colors. Though there are indeed other colors, because of the limited types of receptors in human eyes, we cannot behold them. The brain is just not equipped to do so.

The 1931 CIE color scale is made up of all mathematically possible colors. Given the right circumstances, there is no reason the brain would be unable to process colors at the map's corners. The leading theory for why we do not normally see these colors is that the receptors of the eye work together, and no set of receptors can ever be stimulated by itself. Imaginary colors are intense forms of extant colors which could be seen if these receptors could respond individually.

Thus, the suggestion that the human brain can invent entirely new colors is suspect. With this in mind, one might wonder why Crane was so convinced of his conclusion. Scientific knowledge of our brains tells us his results were wildly unlikely, but he continued to defend his study after numerous criticisms. Is there any reason to believe that new colors can be manufactured by the mind?

Sort of.

In the experiment that attempted to replicate Crane's results, subjects demonstrated exactly what is expected to happen in this situation. When light from multiple types of wavelengths enters your eyes, the brain perceives these colors at point half-way in-between. In the case of red and green, they will become brown.

But when the brain is fed wavelengths from two opposing ends of the spectrum, it cannot take this shortcut. There is no such color in the spectrum of light, but the brain must interpret the information regardless. Instead of redirecting to the closest color between the two, it chooses to create a new color, magenta.

The CIE 1931 color space.
The CIE 1931 color space. | Source

Palettes of Perception

This isn't quite the mechanism that is being suggested by Crane's experiment. However, impossible colors are far from an idea that began through Crane.

Grapheme color synaesthetes report letters they see as being on contradictory sides of the visible spectrum in a single word affects coloring of it strangely. The edges are impossible colors, blending together in a way that does not correlate to any lightwave.

In 2016, Psychology Today posted an article on a synesthetic woman named Morgan Bauman. Owing to her synesthesia, she associates notes to colors, unravelling before her as the song plays. Though partially colorblind, Bauman can see colors that she cannot otherwise see, particularly while playing music.

It is known that patients whom have the lenses of their eyes removed or damaged infrequently can see some UV light, though this is identified as bluish-white. It's believed that Claude Monet acquired this capability after having one of his excised surgically, causing a dramatic shift in palette. Alek Komarnitsky is an example of someone who briefly entered the media for UV light sensitivity.

An estimated 2-12% of females are tetrachromatic, capable of discriminating between a hundred million shades, compared to the average ten million. While tetrachromatics don't see different colors, they notice such subtle variations in shades that computers can't produce images realistic to their eye. It is uncertain what occurs when a person possessing tetrachromatic vision attempts to view chimerical colors.

Pentachromatic (five base colors) animals and humans are not well-documented. There are no confirmed cases of pentachromatic humans, though plausible. Analysis of the eyes of some animals seems to indicate pentachromatic vision, but it's unclear whether they have greater color vision.

Danio rerio, a tetrachromatic fish.
Danio rerio, a tetrachromatic fish. | Source


Psychedelic users, especially of DMT and LSD, have reported sighting colors they had never observed while sober. These claims get no audience in the scientific community --- if you retain a shaky ability to identify extant colors when uninfluenced, then those doing it in an altered mental state are certainly going to attract ridicule.

Due to this, there is little study into the subject of colors on hallucinogenics, and informal reports are the exclusive source. The difficulty of gathering information about these colors is intensified by the lack of adjectives available to accurately describe color.

Occasionally, they explain that they saw a color they knew, often red, and another, unknown color. Other times, mystery colors might be recounted as versions of previously-known colors that are intense or somehow "off." This matches the description of hyperbolic colors, implicating that the substances could interact with how the eyes or brain perceives color data. Hues can even be described as being colors that are both a color and its complimentary color simultaneously.

Similarly, people that haven't taken any drugs can report the same effects in dreams. Anecdotally, there are lucid dreaming and astral projection practicioners that claim to see unreal colors. Vivid dreamers have related similar stories.

In real life, vantablack and viperblack, due to ther light-absorbing properties, appear as if they are a void in space. Three dimensional objects can be spray-painted or dyed, appearing two-dimensional and flat.

Those who to have witnessed these colors are left without language for what they have seen, as if they had lived through an H.P Lovecraft novel. We can only hope that, given time, the nature of impossible colors and their relationship to humans will be better understood, bringing us closer to cohesively understanding the universe and ourselves.


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© 2018 Rudy Flote


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