Language, Color Perception, and Mental Maps

by jsbennett86 1 min read10th Sep 201113 comments


I came across this video today, and it got me thinking about the role of language in drawing mental maps. For those who don't want to bother watching it, the gist of the video is that the words we use to describe colors may, in fact, alter the way in which we perceive color. In the video, some African tribesmen are shown a circle of colored squares and asked to choose the one different from the others. In the first test, the squares are all green (in fact, almost indistinguishable shades of green), and though westerners have a hard time figuring out the odd one, the Himba get it easily. However, they cannot tell the difference between a bunch of green blocks and a very different shade of blue.

PZ Myers points out that this phenomenon in the video may be caused by different neurological wiring between westerners and this tribe. If that is the case, it seems more likely that their language would evolve to represent our experience of color, rather than vice versa. Either way, I can't help but feel that this sort of thing makes it more difficult to tell when you are talking about maps and when you are talking about the territory.

Consider the Blue/Green question here (or Blue/Black if we're arguing to the Himba). We're not hidden in a cave, unable to look at the sky. We both look at it, at the same time, and we say it is one color and the Himba say it is another. Who is right? We can try to dissolve this question by saying that, in fact, the sky is neither blue nor black and in fact only appears to us as one or the other because of how our brains model the sensory input from our eyes. But understanding this would not help the Himba see the blue square among the green ones any easier (nor would we westerners be able to see the odd green one among the greens). If this is a question of how our brains are wired, it suggests that we may have other differences in how we perceive the world (though my lack of imagination prevents me from imagining any right now). Can we overcome such things? Is it useful to try? Or would it just lead us to frivolous debates with people who literally cannot see things the same way as we do?

If, however, our brains perceive things in certain ways because of the words we use to describe them, this suggests we can better model reality by changing our language. By speaking in terms of biases and utility functions, we tend to do that here on LW. Can this be easily translated offline, into day-to-day interactions? If so, how difficult is it to change thinking patterns (or whole brain structures) by changing language? And how do you know if you are modeling reality more accurately (I can't see that making your beliefs pay rent helps any in the debate between blue and black skies)? How can you get others to understand what you're saying, and have it change their perceptions?

Or perhaps I'm just confused. Thoughts?