Whereas I might say a jumper is blue or red, female acquaintances of
mine refer to all sorts of gradations in between, such as navy blue,
shocking pink, and many others that I can’t even recall. But does the
richness of their colour vocabulary mean they can actually see more
colours than me? This is the issue at the heart of the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis – the idea that our perception of the world is anchored in
the language that we use. Now Aubrey Gilbert and colleagues have tested
the suggestion that if language does affect perception, then it ought to
do so more on the right side of space than on the left, because it is
the language-dominant left-hemisphere with which we process the right
side of space.
In an initial experiment, 13 participants had to distinguish between
four similar shades of colour. In terms of wavelength, the shades
differed from each other in equally-sized, incremental steps, but two of
the shades were what we’d call ‘green’, whereas the other two shades
were ‘blue’. Consistent with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, participants
were quicker at distinguishing between a ‘green’ and a ‘blue’ than
between two ‘greens’ or two ‘blues’. Crucially, however, this advantage
only pertained when the colours appeared on the right-hand side of space.
A second experiment showed that this right-hand side advantage for
discriminating between shades on either side of the blue/green boundary
disappeared when participants were distracted by a simultaneous verbal
task, but not when they were distracted by a concurrent spatial task.
“The left hemisphere appears to sharpen visual distinctions between
lexically defined categories and to blur visual distinctions within
these categories, whereas the right hemisphere does so much less”, the
If these results can be generalised to the real world, the researchers
said “…our representation of the visual world may be, at one and the
same time, filtered and not filtered through the categories of language”
depending on whether we’re looking to the left or to the right.
Friday, January 20, 2006
Left right blue green
This is from the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, but should be of interest to Language students too, particularly those studying language & thought/ language & representation on ENA1. It relates to our old friends Sapir and Whorf...