Could You Describe ‘Red’ to a Blind Person?

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Here’s a weird question: How would you describe red? Or blue? Or gray? If you’ve always been able to see (and you’re not colorblind) you’ve maybe never thought through the concept of color. But it’s something Tommy Edison, who’s been blind since birth, has thought about a lot; it’s the subject of three videos on his popular YouTube channel about life as a blind person. 

This week, he published a video in which he asked sighted people at last weekend’s VidCon in Anaheim, California, to explain colors, and it’s kind of hilarious watching people fumble in their attempts to put something like “red” into words:

Some of the highlights:

On red: “Red is, it’s in your face. It gets your attention. Fire is red, and stuff like that’s red. Red also sort of pops out at you and grabs you. We make fire engines red, because we want people to notice them. We make logos on chip bags red when we want people to notice them. It stands out a lot.”

On green: “Green is very springlike, it’s very, ah, leafy, so if you imagine tree leaves and what not. I always imagine that’s how green feels. I like green because they say it inspires creativity, so if you thought of a really creative moment in your life, that’s what green looks like.”

On gray: “The thing that makes me think of gray is the smell of rain on asphalt.”

Okay — I was going to say, cotton candy. I don’t think it feels pink or blue to me. It feels gray. Like cotton balls.”

Some people think gray’s hard, though, like metal.”

On brown: “You’re seeing maybe black right now, so brown is close to black. It’s dark. Chocolate is brown. It’s like muddy; mud is brown — it’s a muddy color. I don’t know; it’s kind of yucky.”

Science of Us got Edison on the phone to find out if these well-meaning sighted people’s descriptions of color helped him understand things a little more clearly. 

So how did they do? Can people describe colors to a blind person?
You know, there were some really interesting answers there, although there were some contradictions, too. The one that jumped out at me was red. The guy that talks about red in the piece said it’s built to get your attention. Bags of chips: I never knew [they] were red. And Coca-Cola is red! And fire engines. I was thinking that it’s almost like — it might be, like, one of the louder colors. I kind of got that one.

And brown, I kind of got, too — like, muddy and dirty, and I just get this sort of heavier feeling from brown, the way people have described it to me. It isn’t loud like red is, but it’s certainly expressive. It creates an atmosphere, is the feeling I got from it. But then, chocolate is also brown! Chocolate is delicious! So, I don’t know; I’m getting mixed signals on brown.

And the other one that jumped out at me is the two guys talking about gray — just that smell, rain on asphalt. I know that smell, if that’s what gray is like. But then he said it felt like cotton candy, which feels soft.

Right, and then the other guy chimes in and says, No, gray is hard, like metal.

Right! So I was getting a little bit of mixed signals there.

Is there one color you’d especially like to see?
I think it might be red. It grabs your attention, and there’s so much stuff in the world that’s red. Red means stop, red means you’re in trouble — if you’re financially in the red, you’re in trouble. Now, I don’t know what that would look like on a sweater! But I kind of get that it’s, like, Warning! It’s supposed to get your attention.

Just judging from the descriptions of color in your video — do you think that sighted people perceive colors the same way?
No, I don’t. There was actually this great video by Vsauce that asked that question: Is your red the same as my red? To hear him talk about color, it sounds like, no, people don’t see the same color. Or, it’s different shades of color. Two people might see the same color and see it differently — whereas I don’t think two people would hear the same sound and hear that differently. I don’t know; it was fun to just hear different people talk about it. It was fascinating.