How We See Colour: Your Brain Lies to You

By Abi King | Show Me

Jul 04

photos of colour yellow

Colour has always made me feel like a fraud. It looks so simple, so obvious, so…colourful. Yet a moment spent thinking about where it comes from and my mind feels faint: wave theory, the electromagnetic spectrum, those migraine-inducing squiggly lines I used to draw in school.

It hardly seems credible that squeezing or stretching a wiggly line manages to give us radio, cancer treatment and microwave meals. Let alone that peculiar white-purple effect under the UV lights of dodgy night clubs.

And then there’s colour. A whole world of colour.

Your Brain Lies

Weirder still, every colour you see and file away in your memory, your mind has made up from a palette of three: red, green and blue according to neuroscience research. That’s all your retina can detect, everything else is conjecture.

And let’s not forget that around 5% of the population is colourblind and can’t even stretch to three.


Colour’s been creeping around my mind since I first heard about the “Capture the Colour” competition led by Travel Supermarket. They’re asking bloggers to post photos from their travels along the themes of red, white, yellow, green and blue. They, in their own way, wanted to know more about colour and hence this blog post was born. (Sorry, but this competition has now closed. I’ve kept the colour themed photos in though.)

For those who just came here for the photos, though, let me walk you through the ones I’ve chosen. (And don’t worry. The words electromagnetic spectrum will not darken this blog post again.)

Photos of colour blue

Photos of Colour, Blue: An Igloo Festival in Tohoku, Japan

Japan has cold air that bites, bites, bites but it makes the most of its northern snow with a flurry of igloo festivals throughout the winter. Wrapped up warm with nothing but hot sake to soothe my frostbite, I walked inside this snow church and saw puffs of frozen air appear before me. Outside it looked like a church. Inside, I found an altar with a makeshift cross and a figure that probably stood for Mary. But I also found relics from Shinto shrines and the curling gold leaves from Buddhist offerings.

A colleague read my surprise. “Japan is more relaxed about monotheism than the rest of the world. Once you’ve reached a thousand or so gods, what difference does another one make?”

Striking words, a striking image. Both linger with me.

Photos of colour white

Photos of Colour, White: Sossusvlei in Namibia

On a computer screen, white may not be the colour that first jumps out at you. After hiking through the world’s oldest desert, it’s the only colour you can see. Sossusvlei, which translates to mean the dead place or dead valley, lies deep in the Namib desert, surrounded by swollen red dunes. One of the driest places on earth, the trees gave up on life hundreds of years ago yet the place is too dry for them to rot.

Humans can’t live in Sossusvlei, but oryx and spiders can – and the natural colours attract roaming photographers from across the world.

Desroches Lizard - photos in green

Photos of Colour, Green: A Lizard in the Seychelles

This fellow crept up on me. I’d been stalking barefoot along the sand, chasing after a brighter hermit crab with freckled apricot legs. Then I turned to see a flash of green.

The Seychelles have something of a jetset reputation yet their natural habitats remain their finest riches by far. The brochures may indulge themselves in coral blues and white, but it was this splash of green that grabbed by attention.

Photos of colour red

Photos of Colour, Red: Formula One in Valencia, Spain

Colour. Sometimes that’s all you feel you see at the Formula One Grand Prix. Scarlet baseball caps bobbing in the air. Smduges of olive green and yellow, showy red and white, vibrant blue and orange, each blazing away in a shapeless blur surrounded by deafening noise.

If colour messes with my mind, that’s nothing compared to the illusion of speed. Fascinating, scary, mesmerizing stuff.

Photos of Colour, Yellow: Malaysia during Ramadan

And finally: the explanation behind the top photo. Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, was observing the fast of Ramadan when I visited last year. As sundown approached, towns sprang alive in their haste to reach the dinners that celebrated the end of that day’s fast. This woman was racing against the sun as I took this photograph – but I remember it for much more than just the yellows and blues.

The lines, just like the colours, make my head swirl in this one. Where is the horizon, the faithful straight line. Is it the curb of the pavement? The concrete step of the shop? The bottom of the shopfront? The top? It’s an image that just keeps on asking questions…


About the Author

Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on

Thanks for nominating me, though I’m not sure I’m up to it!! I will be especially vigilant about the quality of my green photo, obviously…

    Abi King July 4, 2012

    Well, quite!

Laurence July 5, 2012

Hey Abi :) I’m going to be biased and say I love the photo of the gecko the most, but only because it’s from my home country and I don’t often see photos from there! I really like the blue shot though, so if I wasn’t biased I may have picked that one instead ;) Great competition, I’ve put my post together over on my site and looking forward to seeing what folks put together as well!

    Abi King July 9, 2012

    Ah…I just love the way the gecko’s looking at me! Off to check out your photos…

Vi July 6, 2012

Well…I am not sure I can compete with such shots like yours, but here is my submission

    Abi King July 9, 2012

    Thank you for the compliment but you don’t need to compete with me ;) As one of the judges, I can’t enter. I love your shots – especially the one with the person in the water…

Maria Richardson July 6, 2012

I would like to enter but I am not going to do a single post on my blog for a photo competition – it is just not logical for my blog I’m afraid – pity…

    Abi King July 9, 2012

    How about five colours of Brittany?

Simon July 10, 2012

Thank you for nominating me, Abi. Although I’m afraid there’s no chance for me to win, I love to participate and can’t wait to see how many amazing shots will be submitted.
I guess you’ll have a hard time at being a judge in the competition :-)

Love all your 5 pics but that little green frog… is superb!

    Abi King July 12, 2012

    Thank you for joining in! And don’t sell yourself short – why shouldn’t you win? Yes, it’s going to be tough to pick a winner but I’m not thinking about that right now. And I can just relax and enjoy the other colours :)

Bret @ Green Global Travel July 10, 2012

Great pics, Abi, and thanks for sharing info about the contest. Here’s a link to our submission:

    Abi King July 12, 2012

    Off to check them out…

Hogga July 17, 2012

I really like the white sand picture…. such a crazy spot!

    Abi King July 18, 2012

    And so much fun to photograph!

Lindsay Anne Williams July 24, 2012

Your ‘white’ is my fav.

    Abi King July 29, 2012

    Thanks – it’s growing on me. But I still like the frog ;)

The Wonders of Wandering July 31, 2012

I love your green photo of your lizard. Living in Costa Rica I had some great shots of green reptiles but I opted for another adorable little creature. Check out my entry at

    Abi King October 13, 2012

    He’s cheeky, isn’t he? Off to check out yours…

      The Wonders of Wandering October 13, 2012

      What a fun contest!! I am going to have to check out a few more of these!! I love seeing what everyone comes up with!

island traveler August 19, 2012

I felt like I traveled the world in vivid and moving colors. Beautiful. I’m glad Jo of Restlessjo gave me this link. Beautiful!

    Abi King October 15, 2012

    Glad you enjoyed it!

Bhushavali August 23, 2012

Loving the GREEN Lizard!!!
Just completed my post for the contest! Now, fingers crossed!!!
Here’s it:Colors of INDIA!!!

    Abi King October 15, 2012

    Thanks so much for taking part!

Lash August 24, 2012

I think I like the glowing blue igloo the best. I just LOVE bright colors. The more intense and/or neon, the more excited I become.
The green lizard is a close second, though. Such a green!

Wow, I’ve never felt anything but pure excitement and joy when viewing bright colors… certainly not a fraud. Though now that you explain it, I get what you mean. I think I’ll just keep feeling high on colors and forget the other bits. :)

Thanks for your time judging the contest. Here’s my submission:

cheers, Lash

    Abi King October 15, 2012

    As you know, I love your salt ice cream one :)

Michel August 28, 2012

I’ve been looking around at last minute entries and all I can say is…… I’m glad I don’t have to do the judging!

    Abi King October 15, 2012

    So many good ones to choose from, weren’t there…

Fiona Flores Watson August 29, 2012

Finally did mine, just in the nick of time: – bit of a rush job! Need to go on a photography course, big time – decent camera, but no idea how to use it… PS Just to set the record straight, I went to Spain and found love there!

    Abi King October 15, 2012

    I’m told that you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story ;-)

Paul Akpomukai December 28, 2012

In life, we see the things our mind is programmed to see- yet the fact is that there is always more going on around us than we can perceive.

    Abi King January 11, 2013

    Yep. And we’d drive ourselves crazy if we could process it all at once…Too much going on.

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