Your Brain Recognizes and Remembers Color, and It’s Amazing

If you’re a pet owner, you might know that dogs don’t perceive color very well. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that they’re color-blind or that they only see in black and white, but they’re certainly not as good at perceiving fine hue variations as their human companions.

In fact, humans are actually pretty talented at perceiving color. No matter where you are while you’re reading this, you can likely look up from your screen and see dozens or hundreds of different hues, particularly if you’re within eyeshot of a window. But you probably don’t give much thought to how you’re able to achieve this impressive feat, or what has to happen in your eyes, optic nerves, and brain to make it possible.

How Do We See Color?

The Harvard Gazette reported that university researchers located the part of the human brain responsible for processing and recognizing color in the late 1990s. The precise location was actually a bit of a surprise. Similar tests on monkeys two decades earlier revealed the tree-climbing primates’ color centers to be in an adjacent, but different, brain region.

The process of seeing and interpreting color happens in a literal split-second. Our retinas have millions of light-sensitive structures called cones. For color-perception purposes, there are three main types of cone, each designed to perceive a particular wavelength range corresponding with one of the three primary colors (each primary color is a tighter wavelength range at the corresponding structure’s peak sensitivity).

When exposed to light, the cones communicate with retinal ganglion cells (nerve cells) via electrical signals. The ganglia interpret these signals, essentially coding for color, and then forward them to the brain along the optic nerve. After passing through the lateral geniculate nucleus in the brain’s thalamus region, the signals reach the primary visual cortex, where the spatial relationships between the colors (among other important pieces of higher-level information without which our visual experience would be very different) are assigned and preserved. This is how we “remember” color, and how it suffuses our emotional lives.

Birds Do It Better

Lest you get overly prideful about your brain’s ability to recognize and remember color, remember that humans aren’t the only animals capable of perceiving a stunning range of hues. In fact, we’re not even close to being the best at recognizing, seeing, and processing color. That honor goes to the birds — literally.

As an order, birds are far better at perceiving color than mammals, among which humans are better than most. Some birds are frighteningly good at seeing color — their eyes and brains have actually unlocked a portion of the near-visible light spectrum (part of the ultraviolet spectrum, in human terms) off-limits to mammals, such that they are able to see four primary colors.

The takeaway is clear: While the human brain is most definitely amazing, it’s best not to get cocky. Overconfidence is for the birds.

Should Your Brain Worry About Electronic Devices?

The darker corners of the Internet glow with speculation about the evils of the manmade electromagnetic emissions that permeate our atmosphere, from in-home WiFi networks to long-range radio and satellite networks. Inquiring minds want to know: what are all these “waves” doing to our brains?

Worrying about the effects of electromagnetic waves, and of the potentially negative impact of electronic device use more generally, doesn’t put you in league with folks who believe in chemtrails and lizard people. But it’s important not to confuse scientific fact with science fiction. Here is what the latest research tells us about the effects of electronic devices on our brains — and what regular people can do about it, short of ditching their iPhones, TV’s, and laptop computers.

The Brutality of Blue Light

WebMD has a great primer on the relationship between electronics use (or overuse) and poor sleep hygiene. The bottom line: it’s increasingly clear that electronic devices mess with the natural sleep-wake cycles of our brains and produce temporary stresses that affect the quality of our waking hours.

The mechanism by which this occurs is fascinating. Human sleep-wake cycles, known as circadian rhythms, are controlled by a specific area of the brain known as the superchiasmatic nucleus. This region uses inputs from retinal photoreceptors to keep a sort of internal clock driven by key hormones. When it’s time for the body to power down, the brain spurs the production of chemicals essential to sleep, such as melatonin. When it’s time to get up in the morning, the brain dials back the production of sleep hormones and ramps up the production of stimulative stress hormones, such as cortisol.

This cycle is driven largely by the availability of natural light, specifically sunlight. The brain is particularly sensitive to blue-spectrum light, which is more plentiful in the early morning (as opposed to red-spectrum light, which is more common in the evening). You see where this is going: electronic devices clearly emit ample amounts of blue-spectrum light, threatening the integrity of the cycle when used after dark.

Setting Ourselves Up for Distraction

Another potential downside of frequent electronic use is habit-forming behavior. When sociologists warn that we’re becoming “addicted” to our smartphones, they mean it literally. Even if we can convince ourselves that a behavior is productive, it’s simply not healthy to do engage in it to the detriment of all else.

Do Cell Phones and Other Transmitting Devices Cause Cancer?

It’s impossible to discuss the relationship between electronics and health without mentioning the perennial debate about cell phones and cancer.

In 2011, the World Health Organization evaluated troves of relevant data compiled from dozens of studies conducted over the preceding three decades. Its conclusion: it is “likely” that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, which cell phones generate, are carcinogenic. In other words, the energy emitted by cell phones likely raises cancer risk.

However, the WHO stopped short of arguing for a causative link between cell phones (and other transmitting devices, such as WiFi routers and Bluetooth headsets) and tumor growth. It’s not at all clear that the typical human is exposed to radiation from electronic devices in the quantities and amplitudes necessary to establish a clear link between said exposure and tumor growth. The strength of the correlation simply isn’t strong enough, and the number of confounding factors is, well, confounding.

Meanwhile, individual studies on the subject have generally been inconclusive. While some research indirectly supports the WHO’s assertion that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields contribute to the growth of malignant tumors, clear signals (no pun intended) have been elusive. It is possible that future studies that examine heavy cell phone users over the entire course of an adult lifespan will provide conclusive answers. But until then, it’s best to take wide-eyed claims with a grain of salt.

Keep It All in Perspective

It’s often said that moderation is the key to health. And while the adverse effects of electronic devices aren’t as obvious as, say, those of drinking alcohol to excess or overeating (or, in the spirit of fairness, over-exercising), this principle applies to electronics utilization. If you’re stealing a glance at your phone at wildly inappropriate times or checking your email the moment before you settle down to fall asleep, you’re engaging in behavior that most unbiased health professionals would advise against.

So the next time you’re tempted to sneak a peek at your SMS inbox while sitting across the desk from your boss or flip up your iPad while your partner is trying to get some shuteye, take a hard look at what you’re doing and ask yourself: am I doing what’s best for my mind, body, and family? At Healing Waters, we ask our patients this question all the time, and we’re happy to help them reach the right conclusions.