Researchers link language to color and perception of reality

By Emily Bell

Language can actually influence how a person perceives the world, at least in one hemisphere of the brain, according to recent research published by Terry Regier, University of Chicago associate professor of psychology.

Last month, Rieger, alongside co-authors Aubrey Gilbert, Richard Ivry, and Paul Kay at the University of California-Berkeley, published a paper called “Whorf Hypothesis is Supported in the Right Visual Field but not in the Left,” in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers examined the ways that different languages describe color, and how they affect the visual perceptions of speakers of the languages.

Speakers of Tarahumara, a Mexican language, refer to green and blue as different shades of the same color. Russian speakers, however, refer to light blue and dark blue as entirely different colors.

“The fundamental question is: Do these differences affect not only how you talk, but how you think, how you see, how you apprehend reality?” Regeir said.

The results of the paper published in January indicate that they do, at least in half of the brain.

Kay did research in the 1980s in which he found that speakers of English were more likely than speakers of Tarahumara to perceive shades that straddle the line between blue and green as distinct colors.

The experiment done for the January paper found that this tendency to perceive distinctions is more pronounced in the left hemisphere of the brain, the hemisphere responsible for language acquisition and verbal reasoning.

“It forces a reformation of the debate,” Regier said, adding that the question of whether language affects thought can no longer be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”