New Perspectives on Color Vision in Jasper Fforde’s "Shades of Grey"
The neurobiology of color perception has long been a subject of interest both in the scientific community and in popular culture. Color perception varies widely from individual to individual, though it is difficult to characterize and quantify those differences. The effects of color on the function of the nervous system other than those related to vision, such as its effects on emotion, also remain elusive despite ongoing research. In his book Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde takes the complexities of color perception and stretches them to their extremes. The novel, set in a vague semi-apocalyptic future, is unique in that the society it depicts is built entirely around the differences in its individuals’ color perception. At first, this seems absurdly fantastical, but upon further reflection the world in this book is not entirely implausible.
It is likely that no two people perceive color in exactly the same way. This book takes that idea and runs with it. The book centers around Eddie Russet, a young man who has been sent, along with his father, to a small backwater town. Like virtually everyone else in this world, Eddie is incredibly limited in the number of colors he can perceive. He is a Red, meaning he can only see shades of red. Similarly, the Yellows, are only able to see shades of yellow, the Purples can see only reds and blues, and so on. The hierarchy of the society is divided into classes based on color perception, with the Purples at the top and the Reds further down. At the very bottom are the Greys, who are only able to see shades of grey. Eddie is more fortunate than many of the other Reds because he has better-than-average Red perception. This means he can see a higher percentage of all of the shades of red than the average Red and thus has a higher standing within his class. That is, he will once he turns 18 and takes his official Ishihara test to explicitly quantify his color and hue perception. In this world, marriages are strategically made to ensure the family’s continued color perception and thus their standing in society. For instance, it is advantageous for a weaker Red to marry a stronger Red in the hopes that their children’s color perception will be stronger, increasing their family’s status. Even more advantageous is for a Red to marry a Blue so that their children will be Purple. It is forbidden for complimentary colors to marry because their colors will cancel one another out and their children will be Greys. This implies color perception has a genetic basis, which is true in real life as well.
The limits of color perception experienced by people of this world are similar to the limits of our own color perception. While many people are able to see a much wider range of colors than the characters in this book, others are more limited. Humans have three types of cones which respond differently to different wavelengths of light. In people with “normal” color vision, the combination of signals from the cones allows us to differentiate colors. Color blindness is most often caused by the absence or deficiency of one or more of the three types of cone pigments. It is estimated that 13 out of 1000 people in the United States have some form of color blindness(1). It is possible that the people in this world are born with only one or two types of cones and as a result can only see a very limited amount of wavelengths of light. However, color perception is more complex than that, both in their world and ours.
One such aspect of complexity brought up in Shades of Grey is the notion that color perception can be induced artificially. In their world, there are artificial pigments whose colors can be seen and enjoyed by anyone regardless of their natural color perception. For instance, Eddie would be unable to see the color blue in a naturally blue flower, but he could see the color blue in a flower that had been colored with artificial blue pigment. This suggests that color perception in this world is determined not by the absolute wavelength of light being detected but by the combination of signals the receptors send to the brain. This implies that the people in the book do in fact share similar cones. Otherwise, the artificial color would also appear different to different people. This leads me to believe that the differences in color perception have little to do with the actual color receptors in the characters’ eyes but instead are a product of the way the rest of their nervous systems interpret the signals. This hypothesis is supported by another major plot point in the book: if a person or object is not supposed to exist, no one can see it. For instance, in this world there are “feral humans” who live in the wilderness and don’t conform to the rules set by the rest of society. However, the government denies their existence and so no one sees them. This is one of many examples of how reality and the perception of reality are governed largely by the people’s beliefs.
Additionally, color perception in Shades of Grey is not limited to vision. Specific hues are used medicinally to cure colds, boost the immune system, relieve (or induce) pain, and for virtually any other purpose. Some hues are also used recreationally. One specific shade of green can cause the viewer to fall into such a deep state of euphoria that they forget everything else and eventually drop dead. Similarly, intensely vivid hues have consistent and predictable side effects on the viewer, such as causing them to hear music, smell chocolate, or spontaneously think about a favorite childhood pet. This may seem far-fetched but it is generally acknowledged that colors do have the ability to influence moods, emotions and behaviors and to conjure up memories(2). Several types of synesthesia cause people to experience sound, smell, taste or touch when they see certain colors. I wonder whether the characters’ ability to experience these phenomena more intensely than we do results from their limited visual responses to color.
Even though Shades of Grey twists and exaggerates these and other aspects of color perception for fictional purposes, the concepts it uses are far from fictional. If we were to quantify each person’s color perception, we would probably find that everyone differs in the colors and intensities they can see. I think we would also find that the source of that difference is not the mechanical process of vision but rather the way our brains process the information we receive. Perhaps it is also possible to learn to use colors medicinally and recreationally to the extent the characters in the book do. This book is the first in a series of books, but the sequels have not yet been written. It will be interesting to see what new perspectives Jasper Fforde will provide in the future.
The book: Fforde, Jasper “Shades of Grey” New York: Viking. 2009
1. “Prevalence and Incidence of Color Blindness” wrongdiagnosis.com 28 April, 2010 <http://www.wrongdiagnosis.com/c/color_blindness/prevalence.htm>
2. Dodd, Geoff “How Color Affects Mood” psychologypower.com December, 2009