ETC. Op-Ed. / The Reading Room

A Colourful Series: Preview

[ By Gloria Ngu ]

The word ‘colour’ evokes a thousand thoughts all at once: rainbows, Pocahontas, racism, cultural preference, psychology, My Little Pony…

Without a doubt, colours are important to us humans. When colour televisions were made available to the masses in the 1960s, everyone wanted one. We like adding dashes of colour to clothes, buildings and food. In The Wizard of Oz, the vivid colours of Oz are described as ‘strange and beautiful’ as compared to the ‘dry, gray prairies’ of Kansas.

[Image credit: NoBo Magazine]

‘The cyclone had set the house down very gently–for a cyclone–in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty.’ The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum [Image credit: NoBo Magazine]

So, would you find it surprising if I told you that colours don’t exist in the physical world?

Bear with me for a moment as we delve into the science behind our perception of colours.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, colour is the property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way it reflects or emits light. How certain items appear to us as colourful is through the reflection of certain wavelengths of light. Most people have three types of cone cells in their retina that are sensitive to different wavelengths. Based on the wavelengths these cells respond to, information is sent to the brain which then interprets the colour.

So then, do we all see the same colours?

Caption: Remember #thedress ? [Image credit: USA Today]

Remember #thedress ? [Image credit: USA Today]

Put simply, colour doesn’t exist, not physically. But light does, and based on our experience and context, we perceive certain wavelengths of light to be what we know as colours.

However, that leads to another question. If colour does not exist, then why are there so many studies on it? Why are there heated debates about trivial things such as the colour of a dress? If all we perceive is subjective and dependent on external factors which shift constantly, why is colour so important to us that it can symbolize so many things?

Neuroscientist Beau Lotto explained, ‘…colour is more fundamental to our sense of self than we thought previously. Remember, colour has been at the heart of evolution for millions of years.’ He went on to give an example of how flowers are coloured for their benefit and not ours, and also how animals have different colours for different functions, whether it is to hide or to attract attention.

Sight is one of our most basic senses, and through sight we notice colour, so much that we don’t normally give it much thought. Yet, colour, one of our simplest perceptions, has shaped our understanding of the world around us and ultimately, who we are. In the words of Professor Lotto, ‘…colour, which remember does not exist, has shaped the physical tapestry of the world itself.’

This article is merely the prequel to a series of hopefully informative and thought-provoking pieces. Through these articles, we hope to explore the different meanings that colours hold for mankind and learn to appreciate the beauty that we can behold. Check out what’s in store for the next few weeks:


1. The Psychology of Colours

-Effect of colours on humans

2. Colour Symbolism

-What do colours mean in different cultures?

3. If You’re Black or If You’re White or If You’re In Between

-The history of stratification/segregation based on skin colour

-Efforts to stop this stratification/segregation

-Recent issues regarding colour

-Why segregation based on colour is not logical yet still happens

4. Boys in Pink, Girls in Blue
-What determines colour preference?

5. One Malaysia, Many Colours

-colours and cultures in Malaysia


Whether you acknowledge it or not, colours do play a massive role in our perception and understanding of the things around us, and it is for this reason that we should strive to comprehend it.

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