I’m looking through you

I enjoyed this trippy, riffing and rambling reflection from John Van Sloten at Think Christian: “Spiritual perception and the science of color.” It’s half sermon illustration, half stoner epiphany.

I probably enjoyed the stoner-ish aspects more, but Von Slaten’s sermon ain’t bad either. He writes:

Dogs are bi-chromates, meaning their eyes have two cones enabling them to see blue/yellow and black/white, while most humans are tri-chromates, enabling us to see many more colors. Some butterflies have five cones and can see an even broader range. The mantis shrimp, amazingly, has sixteen cones! If all these different species might be looking at the same thing, some would see more colors than others, who, “though seeing, they do not see.”

We can’t perceive the colors that a mantis shrimp can perceive. And thus we find it impossible to conceive of them either. Those colors are, to us, like up and down are to a Flatlander.

As Keanu would say, “Whoa.”

She sees colors that you can't even imagine.

I like where Van Sloten wants to go with this as a theological analogy. Theology, like cosmology, requires us to think about things we’re not quite capable of thinking about — ideas that confront us with the tri-chromate, Flatlander limitations of our kind (“infinity,” for example). When it comes to understanding God, he writes, “we’re a few cones short of full perceptive capacity” and “we must be missing most of what’s really going on.”

The playwright of Job would certainly agree with that.

I do want to quibble, though, with Von Slaten’s suggestion that this lack of “full perceptive capacity” is “because of sin.”

We humans have all sorts of shortcomings that have nothing to do with sin or sinfulness. Sin and sinfulness may be part of the human condition, and they can certainly cloud our perception, but we shouldn’t confuse sin with finitude and fallibility. Nor should we mistakenly think of finitude and fallibility as being sinful.

This is kind of important. If we believe that human misperceptions and misconceptions and incomplete (and thus inaccurate) comprehensions are mainly due to sin, then we’re tempted to conclude that anyone who is fallible is therefore evil. But if we believe that misperceptions, misconceptions and incomplete comprehensions are an unavoidable aspect of the human condition, then we’re encouraged to regard others with more empathy, and to realize that we need each other to improve our own, finite and fallible perspectives.

An emphasis on human sinfulness leads us to avoid the wicked temptation of engaging diverse perspectives. An emphasis on fallibility and finitude leads us to seek out and value diverse perspectives as a necessary corrective of our own blind-men-and-the-elephant limitations. I prefer the latter.

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  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Ever since I first learned that there were colors we cannot see I’ve desperately wanted to somehow be able to see them.

    That’s all I have to say, I have nothing of substance to contribute I’m afraid.

  • TheFaithfulStone

    You can see them. 

    here’s a picture of some x-rays

    If you need a definition of “worthwhile human endeavor” – that one works for me.  It’s taking things you can’t perceive, and mapping them into a space you can perceive.  Another good example is “Music of Saturn” – or the way that music maps your emotions onto words and tonal values.

    The map may not be the territory – but the simulacrum is not a simulation of nothing.

  • histrogeek

    Just as speculation on this, I’d say human sin isn’t the cause of our limited vision, but it is the cause of us failing to recognize where our vision ends and where we fill in the map with monsters. 

  • Tonio

    I don’t understand Fred’s point about theology. I don’t deny the possibility that things may exist beyond our perception. But his argument simply presumes that such things exist. The point only works if there’s a philosophical equivalent of a mantis shrimp that can see gods with its senses and has the capability of human speech.

  • BrokenBell

    I don’t think he’s trying to argue that “because there are complexities of colour that the human eye can’t see, there have to be layers of reality the human mind can’t comprehend”. That is, I didn’t think he was making an argument at all. I thought the point was more that the limited nature of the human eye helps him think about the differences between the way he perceives reality, and the way his god perceives reality. 

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

     I don’t understand Fred’s point about theology. [snip] his argument…

    Seconding BrokenBell, Fred isn’t making an argument.

    It’s an analogy.  Not, “This is true because X,” but “What I believe cn be seen as similar to X in this way.”

    @TheFaithfulStone:disqus 

    By converting from one part of spectrum to another we can see what the light we cannot see would show us, and that is impressive and pretty and worthwhile, but what I meant is the color itself.

    If someone couldn’t see anything in the red part of the spectrum, you could show them an all red work of art by shifting the image blueward, but they still wouldn’t be seeing red.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    The thing that is hard about understanding color is this: the physical reality of color, what actually exists in the objective physical world, is linear. A line. It goes from red, down around 450 terrahertz, to violet up around 700 terrahertz. The set of cones that we have cause us to perceive that line, the spectrum, as a two dimensional area (It’s shaped kinda like a horseshoe for the normally-color-visioned). 

    Consider: The two colors at opposite ends of the spectrum are red and violet. The color dead in the center is green. So, picture it in your head: what color is halfway between red and violet? 

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    I have always wondered, if red and violet are at opposite ends of the spectrum, where does magenta come from? 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subtractive_color

    (basically, to get magenta, you have to absorb out some of the blue-green wavelengths)

  • P J Evans

     Or look at its RGB setting: 255/0/255.

  • Anton_Mates

    The thing that is hard about understanding color is this: the physical
    reality of color, what actually exists in the objective physical world,
    is linear. A line.

    That’s the physical reality of color for a single photon, at least.  But a visual image is based on hundreds or thousands of photons hitting each spot on your retina, so the physical reality of color in that case actually isn’t linear–it’s more like a histogram, where at any given time you have a given distribution of photons along that frequency axis.

    Our visual system basically measures two properties of the shape of this distribution, which results in our 2-D color vision experience.  A critter with more color receptors could measure more properties, all of which would be objective and physical.

    Consider: The two colors at opposite ends of the spectrum are red and
    violet. The color dead in the center is green. So, picture it in your
    head: what color is halfway between red and violet?

    That’s a trick question.  If you think of color as a frequency histogram, “red” and “violet” each correspond to a spike at a particular frequency.  Finding the color halfway between them depends on how you define “halfway.”  You can pick a frequency halfway in between them and put a spike there–that’s what gives you green.  Or you can average their distributions and put two small spikes at the original red and violet frequencies–that’s what gives you magenta.  The two distributions might be centered around the same point on the frequency spectrum, but their shapes are very different–one big spike in the middle versus two little spikes to the left and right–and we can pick up on that.

    A mantis shrimp might be able to do the same with much more complicated color combinations.  Mix chartreuse, lavender and aquamarine, versus vermilion, forest green and a dash of sky blue.  With the right mix of each you could come up with something humans judge to be “yellowish-white,” but a mantis shrimp might view them as corresponding to completely different points on the 7th or 13th dimension of their colorspace.

  • http://danel4d.livejournal.com/ Danel

    I admit, I had a vaguely similar reaction, probably because the more subtle analogy that Fred was making reminded me of some of the awful arguments for God that can be parodied as “Isn’t this new piece of poorly explained Science weird and rather hard to understand? And so it is with God.”

    I remember one example particularly because it was a gorgeously illustrated pamphlet that had been left on the train, but most of all because it was an Islamic tract rather than a Christian one. 

    There’s a difference, though not always apparent, between a humble recognition of limits of our knowledge and a celebration of ignorance. 

  • c2t2

    I’d give my right arm** to have sixteen cones. C’mon, WHERE are the human-animal transplants, mad scientists, and cyborg enhancements that science fiction promised us? I know Bush spoke passionately against human/animal hybrids, but obviously nobody ever told him about the mantis shrimp.

    Imagine the art.

    Go on, imagine it.

    **I am absurdly left-handed, so less of a sacrifice than it sounds.

  • Magic_Cracker

    One of my favorite sci-fi short stories — I think it was an Asimov, but it could have been a Clarke, was about Martians having a 6th sense and they could give humans an injection to activate once and for one time only the dormant sixth-sense organ in humans. SPOILERS! So a human takes the injection and spends an evening with some Martians as they play “music” perceived by only the sixth sense. The human has the most transcendent aesthetic experience of his life (the writer uses synesthesia to describe the onset of the awakening sense, but wisely leaves off without trying to describe what is literally indescribable ). When it’s done, he feels all the worse for it because it was the greatest experience of his life and he knows he can never experience it again — and not only that, but it’s impossible to explain to any other human just what it is he’s lost.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     It is indeed early Asimov. “The Secret Sense.”

  • Magic_Cracker

    That’s the one!

  • Tricksterson

    It was Asimov.  IIRC the human was a jerk, he basically blackmails the Martian (a friend of his) who warns him repeatedly that he’s making a mistake into arranging the injection.  So something of a Twilight Zone story.

  • Apocalypse Review

    The interesting part is how the main character in “The Secret Sense” in the Asimov story was being rather patronizing about the way in which Martians (or Venusians?) couldn’t see all the shades of color humans could.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    I’d love to see them, but the science-fictional solution would do so by giving you the head of a mantis shrimp a la THE FLY. I don’t think that would be a good trade-off. 

    (Goes back to his gorilla-human mind-swap engine)

  • Magic_Cracker

    Also, science fictional solutions tend to make you see Things Which Man Was Never Meant To Know, as in “From Beyond” and X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I’d love to see them, but the science-fictional solution would do so by giving you the head of a mantis shrimp a la THE FLY. I don’t think that would be a good trade-off.


    Those of you helping us test the repulsion gel today, just follow the blue line on the floor. Those of you who volunteered to be injected with praying mantis DNA, I’ve got some good news and some bad news: bad news is we’re postponing those tests indefinitely. Good news is we’ve got a much better test for you: fighting an army of mantis men. Pick up a rifle and follow the yellow line. You’ll know when the test starts.

  • c2t2

    I’m afraid you’re right. I’d have to make my orders more specific.

    “I want a prehensile tail, swivel-ears, and eagle eyes with mantis shrimp cones! Oh, and I want a better sense of smell, I don’t care how big you have to make my schnoz to do it.”

    I’d look awful funny; but hey, I’d be too awesome to care.

  • GDwarf

     

    I’d love to see them, but the science-fictional solution would do so by
    giving you the head of a mantis shrimp a la THE FLY. I don’t think that
    would be a good trade-off.

    I might just go for that, provided I could keep my brain. I mean, mantis shrimp also have ludicrously better depth perception than us (each eye has trinocular depth perception, both together have hexocular), higher resolution vision, the ability to see every polarization of light, the ability to see far more of the EM spectrum, their eyes can focus on different things simultaneously…I mean, these are probably the best eyes in existence. As far as we can tell they use them for…pretty much nothing, too.

  • Anton_Mates

     

    I mean, these are probably the best eyes in existence. As far as we can tell they use them for…pretty much nothing, too.

    Oh, hardly.  Mantis shrimp have a complicated system of visual signals that they use in courtship and territorial interactions; they fluoresce, for instance and do semaphore wavy things with their brightly-colored and polarized paddles and tails.  They’re also visual predators, and are preyed on in turn by lots of other things.  Including octopi and cuttlefish, which are very good at camouflaging themselves.  Mantis shrimp have very good reasons to have good vision.

    I would guess that the courtship function is what’s led to them having insanely good vision.  One of those runaway sexual selection things.

  • Ken

     Jasper Fforde is playing with this in the Shades of Grey novels. Physically you can measure a power distribution across the visible spectrum, but color is something that happens inside your head.

    Also I think Von Sloten’s invocation of sin was only in regard to spiritual perception. I don’t think he meant that Adam and Eve had the full complement of 16 mantis shrimp receptors and lost them in the Fall – though I know there are creationists who make similar absurd claims about genetic alterations due to sin.

  • Magic_Cracker

    …though I know there are creationists who make similar absurd claims about genetic alterations due to sin.

    Well, sure, if Capt. Adam and Lt. Eve hadn’t fucked up Bioship Eden Omega, the original colonists would have continued to rely on eugenic cloning techniques rather than having to couple like beasts.

  • histrogeek

     So not true. Sex is mentioned in Genesis before the Fall, so boinking comes from the time of human innocence.
    Of course it only would have been done in wholesome, unsinful ways. Out in the open. Between nudists. With animals and God walking around the same place. (Don’t try this at home kids.)

  • Magic_Cracker

    I see what you’re getting at, but you’re forgetting to convert the Hebrew characters into numbers and feed them into a Revelator-666 utilizing the Arbitrarion Algorithm.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira


    we’re encouraged to regard others with more empathy, and to realize that we need each other to improve our own, finite and fallible perspectives.

    Oooh you need to play Persona 4. I think you would be quite pleased with its philosophy.

  • Will Hennessy

    (Today’s post title in honor of the 42nd anniversary of Paul McCartney being a peckerwood jackass and breaking up the Beatles.)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    ….nah, not gonna go there

  • Tricksterson

    Besides Paul couldn’t have broken up the Beatles, he was dead by then.  ;>

  • Magic_Cracker

    Speaking of things we can’t see (without technological mediation)…

  • Turcano

    To be fair, a quarter of those cones are dedicated to seeing light at different polarizations, not different colors.

  • Mary Kaye

    Oliver Sacks has written some really cool things about color vision from the neuropsychology point of view.  In particular, he writes in _An Anthropologist on Mars_ about a painter who suddenly lost, probably due to stroke, the ability to process color information mentally–which turned out to destroy not only his color vision but his *ability to remember what colors look like*.  He also writes about the accommodation this individual finally reached with his loss and how he started painting again.

    He also writes in _Island of the Color-Blind_ about a society with a very high incidence of complete color-blindness (and light sensitivity; the affected people tend to be somewhat nocturnal as it’s easier for them to function).

    One I like to think about myself is that some primates have the same red/green/blue system we do, but instead of being separate genes as in humans, red/green are alternative alleles of the same gene, and it is (as in us) on the X chromosome.  So roughly half the males see red but not green, half see green but not red; half the females have one of those options as well, but the other half have “normal human” color vision.

    What would human society be like if there were whole aesthetic areas which  males flatly *could not* perceive?  (And half of females couldn’t either?)  How would trichromat females be treated?

    It’s speculated that in the primates with this configuration, males are good at spotting predators (just as color-blind people have been employed as tank spotters as they are good at seeing through camo) and females are good at spotting fruit–half the females anyway.  Gender essentialism when half the women don’t express their gender-specific trait would be…weird.

  • pharoute

    I remember an article in Sky & Telescope, (maybe) about what it would take to have eyes that could see the stars in true color and such. The main thing I remember is it said rabbit eyes are so sensitive to movement they can see the Sun track across the sky. Always meant to verify that, off to Altavista.

  • Apocalypse Review

    Oh, everyone?

    The original WW2 pulp magazine fell out of copyright.

  • http://www.travismamone.net/ Travis Mamone

    “I’m looking through you. Where did you go?/ I thought I knew you. What did I know?”

    Sorry about that, Fred. I couldn’t resist.

    But you have a good point. I don’t deny sin’s impact on our lives. But what if God just did not give us humans that gift?

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

     When it comes to understanding God, he writes, “we’re a few cones short of full perceptive capacity” and “we must be missing most of what’s really going on.”

    Well, when you think about it, God probably had the same problems designing human perceptual capabilities as humans have designing computer perceptual capabilities. I don’t know if this is still true but as of a decade ago, it wasn’t possible to design a computer that could tell a tank from a cow. It’s not easy to use your own mind to analyze your own mind, let alone then think of a way to duplicate that mind’s capabilities in a completely different substrate. We try to put neural activity onto silicone chips; a disembodied God tries to put perception into creatures with bodies. So I think we should cut God some slack here. 

  • lowtechcyclist

    Maybe it’s just because I’ve just re-read the first Thomas Covenant trilogy for the first time in many years, and because of where I was, and what it was in my life, when I first read it more than thirty years ago, but I’d have to say something I’m not used to saying: Fred, I think you’re wrong.

    But I think your problem is less with what Van Sloten says, than with the long train of baggage that the term ‘sin’ carries with it.  Even for an odd case like me, someone who managed to avoid having his Christian religious experience become the captive of any particular religious tradition, it carried considerable baggage – or rather, I was aware of the baggage it carried with others, though it carried a lot less for me.  I practically refused to use the word during my first several years in the Lord. because I knew that if I used that word in any sort of reasonable way, what I believed I was saying would not be what my listener would take in.

    But the Bible uses ‘sin’ a lot.  Ultimately, it just gets too difficult to work around it all the time.  Hard as it is, it winds up being easier to simply try to wrest the word back to what you think it really means.

    Paul says, “All have sinned, and all have fallen short of the glory of God.”  I don’t think he’s saying two different things; I think he’s saying the same thing two different ways for emphasis.  We have fallen short of the glory of God.  Well, sure, of course.  We are fallible, we are insufficient, in myriad ways, without ever doing anything particularly depraved.  This is part of what it means to be in a state of sin: we just aren’t up to being the sort of people we ought to be.  Even if we have a clear vision of who and what we’re supposed to be, and even if we strive with every fiber of our being to follow and be the fulfillment of that calling, we will fall short of being that which God is calling us to be.

    I have so been there.

    But that’s an essential part of what sin is.  We fall short of the glory of God – again and again.  All we can do is acknowledge our guilt, accept His forgiveness, forgive ourselves and leave our guilt behind as we continue our journey.

    But if we believe that misperceptions, misconceptions and incomplete
    comprehensions are an unavoidable aspect of the human condition, then
    we’re encouraged to regard others with more empathy, and to realize that
    we need each other to improve our own, finite and fallible perspectives.
     

    Well, yes: sin is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition.  Doesn’t necessarily mean committing acts that would generally be regarded as evil.  Just means we’re always falling short.  It means, welcome to the human race.

    If we believe that human misperceptions and misconceptions and
    incomplete (and thus inaccurate) comprehensions are mainly due to sin,
    then we’re tempted to conclude that anyone who is fallible is therefore
    evil.

    They’re not due to sin; they’re part of its warp and woof.  Our misperceptions and misconceptions aren’t there because there’s a potential murderer inside of every one of us, even if it’s true.  They’re there because sin encompasses more than wanting to kill or steal, or wanting to have sex in ways that one’s church might not approve of.   We fall short of the glory of God.  That’s sin.  But it’s no big deal.  We’re all there.

  • Patrick

    You have Job backward.  In Job, it isn’t humanity who can’t see through the eyes of God.  Its an inhuman, amoral, frankly evil deity who can’t see through the eyes of humanity, and who therefore is unbound by any moral code which is based even remotely upon empathy.

    Job 10:4 Hast thou eyes of flesh? or seest thou as man seeth?

    The answer of the book of Job is… no.

  • mud man

    we shouldn’t confuse sin with finitude and fallibility … we need each other to improve our own, finite and fallible perspectives.

    Very nice point. Corollary, we shouldn’t expect to be able to always arrive at agreement, even on crucially important matters. Humans are designed to operate as a community and Trust is vitally important.

    On invisible colors, I read somewhere that while ravens appear uniformly black to people, their feathers are variously iridescent in the infrared such that they can easily identify each other as individuals at long distance. I sure would like to be able to see that. (We have a good-neighbor family of ravens in the woods here helping us keep raccoons off the place and whatnot.) 

  • Froborr

    Since someone mentioned Persona, I no longer feel like *quite* so much of a nerd for admitting this post made me think of a scene in Xenogears. It’s very memorable for me because it’s a beautiful metaphor wrapped in a highly problematic scene.* Basically, you see this large statue in a church of two angels, each with only one wing, reaching for each other. Citan explains that God made them with only one wing so they would be forced to work together to fly, and he made humans the same way. It is a sweet metaphor, and if you take God (or any other sense of ‘someone set it up this way on purpose’) out of it, pretty close to my own beliefs.

    *Problematic because it is a character who is otherwise consistently awesome, mansplaining to a young woman what her statue means. The woman in question is the *head of the church that built the statue*; I think she bloody well knows her own theology! 

  • malpollyon

    Problematic because it is a character who is otherwise consistently awesome, mansplaining to a young woman what her statue means. 
    Citan is consistently awesome? This is the same Citan who (ROT13 for spoilers) Nyybjf uvf sevraqf gb pbafhzr uhzna syrfu n pbhcyr ebbzf orsber svaqvat gur snpgbel jurer gurl cebprff gur zrng.? Not to mention when Srv’f Trne trgf oybja hc ol Evpb’f urapuzra. Yngre gung avtug, Vq jnxrf hc, grnef rirelbar erfcbafvoyr’f urnqf bss. Pvgna cvaf gur oynzr ba n ubeevsvp ybbxvat ohg bgurejvfr crnprshy Jryf yvivat va gur frjref naq urycf Srv naq Evpb zheqre vg. Va gur sbyybjvat npg, jr svaq gur zhgnag’f becuna fba jub fgvyy ubyqf bhg ubcr uvf sngure jvyy bar qnl erghea.

  • Jessica

    I mostly just wanted to geek out about the mantis shrimp.  =) I love the colors on those things– they’re just so vibrant.  It really makes me miss having an aquarium, though mantis shrimp are notoriously bad for keeping in captivity– some species are capable of punching (yes, punching! how cool is that?!) through aquarium glass and well, you can imagine how that would end. 

  • GDwarf

    They have a punch equivalent to a .22 round, so yeah, kinda hard to keep captive. :P

    Apparently in the Bahamas they’re nicknamed thumb-splitters.

  • Tricksterson

    Now all we have to do is breed a race of giant ones, implant them with obedience chips and take over the WORLD!!!  MUHAHAHAHAHA!

  • GDwarf

     Quite frankly I think we could do it with normal-sized ones. They come pre-armoured and everything. Clearly the only reason they don’t rule over us all is that they have some sinister scheme of which we are unaware.

    On the plus side, once they do take over one can only hope that everyone will be required to dress as fabulously as they do. I could get behind iridescent clothing.

  • christopher_young

    Apparently there are a few people around with four cones. Something else I read, which I can’t find now, suggested that for genetic reasons they’re all women.

    When I first came across this information, my reaction was, “Wow! that must be awesome.” But now I wonder. If you’re a tetrachromat the world looks the same to you as it’s always looked, but more important, you can’t explain to anyone else what it looks like. I suspect this is one of those genie’s wishes, that sounds a lot better in theory than after it comes true.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    If anything, it’s probably a bit of an annoyance, since you keep wondering why other people think that ridiculous outfit looks fine, despite the fact that the bleen of the belt clashes with the blorange of the blouse, but no one ever backs you up on that.

    (There is, IIRC, some debate as to whether human tetrachromancy even really exists. Since not all tetrachromats see the same extra colors, and none of them have the vocalulary to adequately describe their experience, there’s some difficulty in comparing the self-reports of suspected tetrachromats. It’s entirely possible that the brain just crushes down that extra color information into the same colorspace the rest of humanity is stuck with)

  • Damanoid

    “Fragment” by Warren Fahy is a sci-fi novel about the contemporary discovery of a “lost world”-style island which has been isolated for hundreds of millions of years, and has evolved an entire ecosystem descended from critters like the mantis shrimp.  It’s a pretty good read, as well as a colorful explanation of why the mantis shrimp is so incredibly terrifying.  It’s quite possibly the best piece of mantis shrimp-based science fiction ever written.

  • Mary Kaye

    I know a family where the mother and one of the three daughters are believed to be tetrachromats, while the father and the other two daughters are not.  It has led to some confusing discussions of house and clothing color schemes.  The key colors for disagreement are in the green part of the spectrum–tetrachromats split “green” in a way that other people don’t.  It’s not that they can see a new color off the end of the spectrum, but they have more distinguishing power internally, and in particular yellow/blue mixtures that may look green to me look “off” and “wrong” to them when juxtaposed to actual spectral greens.

    One tetrachromat who wrote about this said that there is Grass and there is Fence (the color people in her homeland paint fences that are supposed to blend with the vegetation) and she can’t tell why anyone thinks they look the same.

    The reason (almost) all tetrachromats are female is that you need two different green receptors, and that gene is on the X so only females normally can have two copies.  (It’s more complex than that in that many of us have extra but unused copies.  If they could be turned on….)  You could be a male with Klinefelter’s Syndrome, XXY, and be a tetrachromat.

    It is really interesting to sit down with someone with non-standard color vision and talk about what distinctions you and they can make with a given scene or photo.  Color is really, really complicated and a lot of it comes from the brain; color-blind people perform very differently on objects in context and featureless swathes of colored paint.


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