Perception of the world influenced by language

Does language affect our perception of color?

Color grid It is interesting to think that the we still have much to learn about the most studied part of the brain - the visual cortex. Given this, how is it that we understand so little about such a basic neurological phenomenon as “visual integration”. By this, I mean how do we take basic signals coded as color, shape, orientation, motion and make meaning of these?

A persistent, yet controversial concept, in linguistics is known as the Whorf-Sapir Relativity Hypothesis. This hypothesis holds that language itself affects how we see the world: our perception of the world is influenced by language. Though over the years, cognitive psychologists and others have made reference to Whorf-Sapir in a variety of studies, I had not seen any neurophysiological support for this theory until recently. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that humans all perceive basic visual stimuli similarly. So how could language possibly affect perception?

Color categorization has long been of interest to linguistic anthropologists and cognitive psychologists. Berlin and Kay (1969) conducted a cross-linguistic study of color categorization discovering that color categories are not uniform across languages. There seemed to be focal, or prototypic colors, but the number varied depending on the language. Also, boundary members varied in terms of categorical membership (that is, whether a particular color was classified as blue versus green). However, in their study, speakers of languages that classified colors differently, did not perceive colors differently. Berlin and Kay hypothesized a set of universal constraints and, thus, some prediction for color categorization. Their study also seemed to suggest strong evidence against the relatively hypothesis: linguistic categories do not affect or change perception. (Also, see Kay and McDaniel (1978) which is available as a downloadable PDF.)

In intervening years, a number of researchers have countered Berlin and Kay’s theory, primarily on the basis of methodological flaws. More recently, however, a 2009 (Siok, et al.) functional MRI study has lent credible biological evidence that language plays a role in the categorical perception of color. The faculty for language is found in the left hemisphere of the brain. But by looking at brain activation maps across both hemispheres in a visual search task, these researchers discovered that enhanced activity in the right visual field coincided with enhanced activity in the part of the left hemisphere concerned with lexical processing. Results suggest that language may provide some top-down control modulating the activation of the visual cortex.

In 2012, Loreto, Mukherjee, and Tria published a paper in PNAS demonstrating through a multiagent simulation how a population, subject to the perceptual constraint “Just Noticeable Difference”, categorized and named colors through a purely cultural negotiation. They claim strong quantitative agreement with the World Color Survey (WCS) pioneered by Berlin and Kay.

In the end, the question of whether language affects perception does have foundation in neurophysiological processes. Perhaps, not to the extent originally conceived by linguistic relativists. But maybe there is additional supportive evidence not quite so dependent on basic visual stimuli.

Berlin, B. & Kay, P. (1969). Basic Color Terms. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kay, P. and McDaniel, C. (1978). The linguistic significance of the meanings of basic color terms. Language, 54(3):610-646.

Loreto, V., Mukherjee, A., & Tria, F. (2012). On the origin of the hierarchy of color names. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(18), 6819–6824.

Siok, W., Kay P., Wang, W., Chan, A., Chen, L., Luke, K., & Tan, L. (2009). Language regions of the brain are operative in color perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(20), 8140-8145.