How to Explain Color to Someone Who Can’t See

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Photo: Jeffrey Davis/Blend Images

How do you explain color to someone without sight? It’s a challenge that renders all the normal visual frames of reference completely useless — you can’t say that green is the color of grass, or blue is the color of water, because they haven’t seen those things.

But they have felt them. And a recent post on the list-making site li.st illustrates the powerful connection between color and what we feel. “After a great doctor and a lot of work, I can see just fine now,” wrote a user named Ashley, “but for a while in my childhood, after a period of nothing, all I had was light and dark.” During that time, she explained, her friends and family tried their best to translate feeling into color, reframing sights into experiences that didn’t require the sense at all. Here are a few:

Red:

They had me stand outside in the sun. They told me that the heat I was feeling is red. They explained that red is the color of a burn, from heat, embarrassment, or even anger.

Blue:

They put my hands in their pool. They told me that that sensation I felt while swimming, that omnipresent coolness, that’s blue. Blue feels like relaxation.

Green:

I held soft leaves and wet grass. They told me green felt like life. To this day it is still very much my favorite color.

The post is an interesting reminder that color, something we think of as completely visual, isn’t just seen. A room will feel soothing or energizing, cheerful or gloomy, depending on how it’s painted. One 2010 study asked people to match their mood to a spot on a color wheel; most healthy people chose a sunny yellow, while people with anxiety and depression picked a spectrum of grays. It’s reflected in our idioms — we’re feeling blue, or seeing red, or green with envy. Some people even have emotion-color synesthesia, in which they see a certain color whenever they feel a certain way. (Those pairings don’t necessarily follow the typical patterns, though — one 2012 case report, for example, describes a man who linked green with happiness; in a Reddit thread on synesthesia, users described love as dark blue and sadness as purple.) So tightly bound are color and emotion, it seems, that it’s hard to experience one without the other.