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Reality v. Perception

Each individual interprets the world in his/her unique way. What one sees as real is not what it actually is; rather, it is just a version of the reality, its vision. Therefore, the reality is a very changeable concept which is different for every individual.

Understanding of the world comes through multiple levels. The basic one, neurological perception or sensation, is based upon the human innate ability to gather information about and from the world by means of receptors (eyes, ears, skin, nose, tongue, mouth, inner ear, etc.). It depends largely on the physical ability. Thus, it is fundamentally the same for every individual unless he or she has some damage of a receptor.

The raw data gathered by sense organs is further interpreted in the brain. At this level, known as categorical perception, the information comes through the filters of beliefs, thoughts, judgments, values, and prejudices indelibly programmed into subconsciousness to create a subjective “reality”. What makes the process so interesting is that it goes far beyond the information present in the environment.

Let us take an example of history. People tend to think of history as a science that tells about what happened in the past. Yet, historians are often dealing with probabilities, judging facts, and drawing conclusions by evaluating the information in the archives. Accordingly, they construct their version of how the reality was like in the past (Davidson & Lytle, 1992).

Differences in color perception draw another vivid example of how the reality may be interpreted. It is said that human eye can distinguish over two million colors (Elkins, 2009). It seems reasonable that everyone is endowed with the same neurological machinery that allows perceiving colors in the same way. However, human visual and categorical perception of color can differ in arbitrary ways. Hence, there is no agreement concerning the number of primary colors. Neurophysiologists, psychologists, painters, philosophers, photographers, printers, and linguists have different visions of the matter (Elkins, 2009). For instance, painting and photo software operate six color primaries: three primary colors (yellow, red, and blue), which can be mixed to create three complementary colors (violet, green, and orange) (Elkins, 2009). However, the hottest debate concerns language and color perception.

The universalist view of color perception holds that color words differ across languages, due to differences in the environment and experience. In short, universalists claim that color perception of a human is universal and independent of language (Regier & Kay, 2009). They suggest that the color palette can be categorized by the universal focal colors which correspond to eleven English words black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and grey (Berlin & Kay, 1991; Fountain, 1999; Elkins, 2009). However,  less color terms are used in some languages. For instance, the Berinmo language categorizes colors with five words, while the Dani use just two terms for the same purpose (Fountain, 1999). Nevertheless, basic color terms are added as languages evolve in a strict sequential order (Berlin & Kay, 1991).

By contrast, the relativist view suggests that color perception is shaped by language. Relativists argue that, since languages categorize the reality differently, speakers of those languages should correspondingly perceive the reality differently, as well (Regier & Kay, 2009). Therefore, people are said to “see the world less with their eyes than with their language” (Fountain, 1999, 4).

Results of numerous studies on color perception show that the truth is in between. People are born with the innate basis for categorical perception of color. Thus, color term knowledge does not affect color categorical perception in toddlers (Regier & Kay, 2009). The inborn pre-linguistic categories serve as a starting-point for the later elaboration of linguistic categories.

It appears uncontroversial that the human ability to perceive colors is further developed with the language acquisition (Regier & Kay, 2009). Accordingly, perceptionof the world is shaped by the semantic categories, which vary across languages. They determine “much of the experience of color, as well as various practices of painting and drawing” (Elkins, 2009, p. 211). Eleven primaries get specialized to thousands more color terms depending on the field which people are involved in. For instance, painters tend to name colors by the name of the pigment used in paint.

Consequently, there is only “a vision of reality,” which is, essentially, perception. The reality is shaped by interpretations, judgments, and evaluations imposed upon the information. Therefore, human color perception is not just a projection of the reality, but it is rather detection from it, as well.