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1:58pm on Sunday, 8th October, 2006:

Becoming a Polychromat


Quite by accident, this morning I became a polychromat, at least in my imagination.

I'd just woken up, but hadn't got out of bed, and was lying there with my eyes shut trying to expand the field of vision I have in my mind's eye. With my real eyes, I can only see what's in front of me and maybe 80 degrees either side of that, but why should my mind's eye be so restricted? So I was expanding it a bit at a time, aiming for total wraparound. It was quite easy; I'm a little annoyed with myself that I hadn't thought to attempt it before.

Anyway, because I wanted something to "see" in my imagination, I set up this pattern of dabs of light that faded in and out individually. I wanted to make them be fairly random, so I set off a process to do that — just pick an empty space on a whim and put a dab of light there of some colour chosen on a whim, which would then fade after a couple of seconds or so, determined on a whim. It was basically an exercise in plate-spinning.

So, the colour dabs (I call them "dabs", but they were sort of soft-glow circles with like a Gaussian fade to them) are coming and going and the process I'm using is just picking random colours and dotting them around. The colours are reds, greens and blues of various intensities, but I notice that there are more reds than there should be. I check out the process and there's nothing wrong, it must be that it's just how my whim is operating. One effect of collapsing the process (which happens when I think about it in words) is that I get a feel for the base colours it was using, and unsurprisingly those are correct because those are the ones with which I primed it.

Then, I remember my earlier experiments in imagining a fourth prime colour. I've had the "feel" for one set up for several months; what if I prime the replacement colour-dabbing process with this colour as well as the others?

So I did, and so my random field of dabs contained four primary colours. Still too many reds, but never mind that — I was seeing some dabs in this, well, there are no words to describe it. I thought I might get some sickening gut reaction to the experience, but no, it was just as if the fourth primary colour had always been. It did surprise me enough to open my eyes, though, which shut it off.

Emboldened, I tried to conceive of another imaginary colour. My first attempts weren't convincing; I got the impression that they were maybe mixes of the first colour with red, blue and green — it's kinda hard to tell, given that even in normal circumstances it's not exactly obvious that yellow is made of red plus green. After a couple of minutes, though, I did manage to put together what I was fairly sure was a new structure, and when I added it to my field generator it felt comfortable there. I had to take out two other colours fairly quickly, though, as my process was having trouble choosing from 5 as quickly as I wanted (red and blue went, if you're interested).

So I can now create new primary colours and see them in my imagination pretty well to order. I have to be careful when grasping for a new "feel" for one that it's not a mix between that and a colour I already know, but so long as I can create a mental structure to represent it, I can "see" it. This makes me a polychromat, rather than the regular trichromat, although only within my mind's eye.

The next step — overlaying my actual vision with manufactured colours — was just as easy as it is for ordinary colours. I could replace blue with my first imaginary colour and "see" it as if it were real. I could also overwrite an object (OK, a wardrobe) so it was based on the new colour, while keeping everything else normal. Of course, I'm not really seeing four colours — my eye is still only sending three to my brain — but I'm editing the image before I get to look at it so it appears as if I'm seeing four colours.

You want to know what the colours look like, don't you?

Well, the thing is, I can't tell you. You and I have no shared vocabulary on this. It's like explaining the difference between red and green to someone who's red/green colour blind: "there's an extra colour that's like red and blue except it's green". It doesn't get you very far. I could explain the impressions that I have from the colours that I've created, but they're only feelings of feelings; the actual structure I use collapses when I try to turn it into words, so all I can do is try to describe the echoes of the original. This is next to impossible even if I know you have the colour mapped inside your head anyway, because what green "feels like" to me is not necessarily what it feels like to other people (if it were, people with synaesthesia would share the experiences they get for the same stimuli, but they don't). All I can really say is that seeing a new colour was something of an anticlimax. I'm sure there are beautiful shades of it, just as there are of the colours we can all see, but the most striking thing about it was its very mundanity. It was just another colour. The best I can say is that it added variety. The same applies to the other colours I thought up; different, but essentially the same. I have no real context for them, so they have no real meaning for me. They're just ... colours.

I'll maybe play with them a while, and perhaps introduce them into my dreams, but they haven't given me any kind of transcendental experience (thank goodness!).

That said, if I could order a new car in one, I would.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).