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Published Nov 27, 2019
Is Magenta Real?
Your brain is a badly-designed hot mess of bootstrapped chemistry that will tell you all kinds of weirdness is happening that has no correlation to physical reality. It just makes things up. Your brain is guessing about what’s happening when your eyes saccade, what’s happening in your blind spot, and what the majority of the visible light spectrum looks like, and you don’t know it’s happening because it doesn’t aid your survival to become aware that a lot of what you see is fake.
The human eye only has three types of color sensitive cones, which detect Red, Green, and Blue. Your brain is making up every other color you perceive. This is one of the reasons that computer programs will give you RGB values, which stands for Red Green Blue values.
This is the visible spectrum of light:
You will of course note that yellow is on the chart. Yellow has a discrete wavelength, and therefore is a distinct physical color. But we can’t see it.
What we call yellow is just what our brain shrugs and spits out when our red and green cones are equally stimulated. We have light receptors that can pick up on the physical spectrum of light we call yellow: that’s why yellow things don’t just look like moving black blocks to us. But your brain has no idea what the color yellow looks like. Some animals have eyes that can perceive the color yellow! Goldfish, for example, have a yellow cone in their eyes. If they could talk, they could tell us what yellow looks like. But we wouldn’t be able to understand it.
This is what your brain actually sees of the color spectrum:
We can measure the wavelength of light, so we know that when we see ‘yellow,’ we are seeing light in the 550-ish nanometers range. But we don’t have a cone in our eyes that can pick that up. Your brain just has a very consistent guess about what color that wavelength of light could be. We decided to name that guess ‘yellow.’ We can’t imagine what yellow really looks like any more than a dog can imagine the color red.
Here’s the funny thing: your brain is never perceiving just one photon of light at a time. Something like are hitting your retina under normal conditions. Your brain doesn’t individually process all of them. So, it averages them out. It grabs a bunch of photons all coming from the same direction, with the same pattern, and goes, “Yep, that cup is blue, next.”
That’s how colors blend in our eyes. So sure, if a photon of light with a wavelength of 550 nanometers bounces into our eyes, we see what we call yellow. But if we see two photons at the same time, coming from the same object, one of which is 500 nms (nanometers) and the other of which is 600 nms, your brain will average them out and you will still see yellow even though none of the light you just saw was 550 nms.
“So, how does magenta factor into this?”
Well, as we’ve just established, when your brain sees light from two different slices of the visible light spectrum, it will try to just average them together. Green plus red is yellow. If it’s more red than green, we’ll call that ‘orange.’ We’re trying to forage over here, there are bears out and it’s scary, nobody cares about orange.
What happens if you take the average of blue and red light, which is perceived as magenta? What’s the centerpoint of that line?
Hey, that’s not gonna work. We live on a planet where EVERYTHING IS GREEN. If something is NOT green, that means it’s either food, or a potential source of danger, and either way your brain wants you to know about it.
So your brain goes, WHOOPS. Okay - this is fine. We already made up yellow, orange, cyan, and violet. We’ll just make up another color. Something that looks really, really different from green.
And so it made up magenta.
So, physics-wise, is magenta “real?”
No, there’s no single wavelength of light that corresponds to magenta. But you’re rarely seeing only a single wavelength of light anyway. And even when you are, every color other than RGB is a dart thrown on the wall by your brain. This is the CIE Chromaticity Diagram:
I really don’t want to explain this, but there’s a link that will go into this more. Anyways, the point is that only colors that actually touch the ‘outline’ of the shape actually correspond to a specific wavelength of light. All of the other colors are blends of multiple wavelengths. So magenta isn’t that special.
Given that color is just a fun trick your brain is playing on you to help you find food and avoid danger, is magenta real?
Yes, absolutely. Or at least, it’s just as real as most of what we see. It’s what we see when we mix up blue and red. It would be disastrous from a survival standpoint to perceive that color as green, so we don’t. Because it’s not green. Light that’s green has a wavelength of around 510 nms. Stuff that’s magenta bounces back light that is both ~400 and ~700 nms. Your brain knows the difference. So it fills the gap for you, with the best guess it has, same as it does with your blind spot.
The perception of color exists within your brain, and your brain says you see magenta. So you see magenta.