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Colour Perception

Nature volume 25, pages 604605 | Download Citation



WHILE working at dry-plate photography in a ruby light, I noticed that when any light-coloured article, such as the hand, was rapidly moved, it appeared of a brilliant greenish-blue, in which blue predominated, while, when slowly moved, it appeared of the same colour as the other objects in the room. Seeking for an explanation, led me to recognise a new fact about colour perception which may be of interest to your readers. The reason of the hand appearing blue when in rapid motion was because the continual use of the red light had fatigued that part of the retina responsive to it, and the light reflected from the hand impinging for a very short time on the retina, was not strong enough to excite the sensation of red, but was quite sufficient for blue, the nerves responding to this colour having been rendered acutely sensitive by complete rest. To test this hypothesis, I obtained some dark blue glass and applied it to the window of the dark room, removing the red. On repeating the experiment, the eye with its blue sense exhausted, saw rapidly-moving objects reddish. Now from this it is clear that it takes a longer time to cause a sensation in an exhausted than in a fresh organ. It also gives a direct proof of Helmholtz's suggestion, “that actual coloured light does not produce sensations of absolutely pure colour; that red, for instance, even when completely freed from all admixture of white light, still does not excite those nervous fibres alone which are sensitive to impressions of red, but also to a very slight degree those which are sensitive to green, and perhaps to a still smaller extent those which are sensitive to violet rays” (“Popular Scientific Lectures,” first series, p. 223). These observations have led me to an explanation of a very curious phenomenon brought under my notice by my friend, Mr. Napier Smith. When discs of paper on which black spaces have been marked, so that on rotation the eye receives impressions of black and white too rapidly to notice the pattern, but too slowly to combine into a neutral gray, the rotating card appears to be distinctly coloured, especially when it is looked at without keen attention, or as we may say passively. All colours may be seen, but red and blue were the most distinct to me. I at first thought that the colour might arise out of the paper and ink, the former being perhaps tinted with blue to whiten it in manufacture, and the latter probably a dark brown; but on looking several times at the rotating discs, and acquiring the power of looking passively the intensity of the colours could not be so accounted for. The true explanation is found, I believe, in the fact that the different colour organs require longer or shorter periods of excitation before responding to the stimulus, and that those which require the longest periods also retain the sensation longest. I have only made very rough trials, but they point to the fact that the eye responds quickest to red, so that the most rapid alternation will appear reddish, a little slower green will come in, and cause some indescribable colours, such as are seen in the polariscope, and lastly, when green and red are about equal, and producing white, blue will be seen. The blue is best seen with a slow rotation, and a large amount of black, because the red and green impressions have time to die out, and the blue (the most persistent) remains alone, showing like a fine fluorescent layer overlying the disc. I have not at present the time, or I would attempt to find out the excitation-periods for the different colours by this method, and I believe that a finer mode of applying it might determine the real number of colour-sensations, and allow of a decision being arrived at between the theories of Young and Hering.

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