A world without colors

by Luigi Anzivino

A world without colors, originally uploaded on flickr.

This is a hard one to explain. Richard Brown, resident neuroscientist at the Exploratorium, had an exhibit for the Liminality party, called “A world without colors”. You walked into a room, and all of a sudden you were in a black and white movie: everything was monochromatic, a pale shade of yellow, and it was impossible to determine the color of anything. Very stunning sensation.

At the entrance of the room there was a rainbow-striped carpet: as you passed the threshold (the “limen”), the rainbow lost all its colors and became a collection of stripes in shades of gray. Posters on the wall looked like black ink etchings. There were big bowls of multi-flavored Jelly beans, and they all looked gray and black. It made it harder to identify the flavor, showing that taste is a very complex and multimodal perception, which relies on more than just the taste receptors on our tongues, but includes sight as well as smell. When we say that we eat with our eyes, it is literally (albeit partially) true.

How did it work? He flooded the room with low-vapor sodium lights, which put out only one frequency of light. Our brain can compute color by comparing the information that comes in from our three different types of cones (photoreceptors in the retina, the back of the eye). By flooding the visual scene with one frequency, this comparison is shortcircuited, and the brain interprets everything as monochromatic.

Another genius bit was that he had arranged a number of regular flashlights that you could pick up and go around the room shining a beam of full-spectrum light on objects. This brought back the colors only in the spot where the light shone. It was like having a magic wand that painted colors on the world.

He had also arranged colored markers and index cards, so that you could make a “black and white” drawing, then with the flashlight discover the colors in them. And a lot of other small details. It was a fascinating and fun room to spend some time in, albeit a little eerie and otherworldly.

Of course, digital cameras are not like our brains, so taking pictures did not work very well. They came out strongly dominant in the yellow, but the sense of monochromaticism was lost. So I photoshopped this image to reproduce the percept of what it felt like to be in the room. I think it came out relatively true to the experience.