The Doors of Perception

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Payne’s gray, cold gray, pewter, silver, warm gray.

Bronze, brown ochre, burnt sienna, burnt umber, copper, gold ochre, orange ochre, modern brown, raw sienna, raw umber, stil de grain brown, transparent oxide brown, Vandyke brown, yellow ochre.

One of these lists is not like the other, right?

A long time ago I read that people can perceive far more shades of brown than shades of grey, and the author hypothesized that this was because for many years of evolution we spent a lot of time staring at the ground and trying to pick up minute differences that might mean something to eat.

Of course one can’t prove the evolutionary story, but it made a lot of sense to me. And those lists of colors back it up. Oh – they’re colors for some brand of oil paints. I don’t remember which, because I looked them up over ten minutes ago. But I did check 5 different brands of paint, and every one of them had a huge difference between the number of grays and the number of browns. The list I just used for an example had more grays than any other brand; most have just Payne’s gray and Someotherkindof gray.

The famous color wheel isn’t the end of the story on color; it’s just the beginning. Our brains take the products of color mixing and interpret them according to what we need. Or what we needed umpteen thousand years ago.

What’s that got to do with writing? Just this: I think that while we were evolving to distinguish yummy brown bugs from inedible brown dirt, we also evolved to distinguish stories from random blather. Life happens and we try to extract meaning from it. That’s why writers need to give their audience a story, with cause and effect, with people behaving like people, with a distinct ending that feels related to the beginning. That’s why I seldom finish books that say, “That happened, and then this happened, and then this happened…” and on and on with no clue as to why I should give a damn what happens next or what it might be.

We also try to throw away information that’s not relevant to the story, which is why readers become restive when you spend six pages describing the sunset.

It’s also why, when the First Reader was writing technical papers, I spent hours intoning, “First tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Because he tended to plunge right into the graphs-and-equations part of the story, and it’s really hard to get people to focus on your nifty graph unless they can see how it’s connected to the story you’re telling.

So go forth and create meaning. It’s what will keep them reading.




  1. If you want myriad shades of grey, start with what paint vendors call “white”…. suddenly there are dozens.

    The various theories of why our color vision is as it is — all seem to neglect something vital: vision apparently evolved from the broad to the specific; ability to perceive was lost over the eons, not gained. Color vision appears to have started as nonspecific sensitivity to sunlight, and narrowed from there. More-primitive creatures like insects, fish, and birds (modern-day dinosaurs) typically still see UV and colors most mammals can’t (eg. tetrachromacy, which in a prior era was common in mammals), and perception became more restricted over time until you reach the modern large herbivores — evolutionary dead ends that have lost all but the most rudimentary color vision.

    1. Thing is, having sensors that are sensitive to intensities of light at five or six different frequency clusters doesn’t do any good without processing.

      Processing is expensive. If the processing is up for giving a basic level of utility sensitive to six fundamental colors, then the same capacity might be more useful if instead it is applied to only the most important five colors.

      Humans at least seem to do some very sophisticated things with our visual processing.

      1. Thanks for the explanation; you said clearly what I was fumbling around trying to express.

      2. The thing I find incredibly cool is that we can hack colorblindness with an external fix—those chroma glasses. It’s apparently a processing issue; the brain has trouble distinguishing between certain wavelengths (possibly harmonic?), and the glasses basically strip out the similarity points so that the brain says, oh, THIS is what I’m seeing.

        It’s really fascinating to look at those videos of people truly seeing color for the first time. (And if you wonder how some of them can name colors that they’ve technically never seen before, remember that “colorblindness” is not shades of gray, but like a semi-sepia filter. There’s online sites that will show you what the various types of colorblindness look like.)

        1. Hadn’t heard of the fixit glasses, but that sounds useful. I know someone who is colorblind in the yellow spectrum, which makes her an Adventure on the road — she can’t see yellow caution lights nor yellow dividing lines. I had to teach her to look for the contrast, since she doesn’t see the color (apparently not even as some form of sepia; more like it disappears entirely).

          Conversely, she seems to see maroon as bright red, or at least can’t tell it from bright red.

          1. I once knew a fellow who had two lighters, one pink and one purple. They looked the same to him. I knew this as his “buddies” thought it hilarious to swipe one and have him ask for it back… by color. He had me write the color of each on the lighter, so he could keep track thus. However, what seems a loss was also a gain. Most animal camouflage, he had realized, simply did not exist for him. “Color-blind” might be a ‘defect’.. but also an advantage.

    1. Brown on the computer screen is an illusion; there’s actually no such thing (it’s a mix of various other colors, mostly orange and purple). This makes color-matching an Adventure, as I discovered when a client needed a particular shade of brown for their logo. Grey is much easier!

      And if you need a nice warm almost-white paint for your home… try Swiss Coffee. It looks white (unless you compare it to paper) but is much easier on the eyes, and tends to not show dirt.

  2. Amusingly, H. Sapiens supposedly actually has two different red-sensitive pigments in the eye, though one is rare. It is therefore possible for some women (only) to be tetrachromatic, though I gather there are no known examples.

    The octopus has monocchromatic color vision. Sitting in front of each cell of the octopus eye is a structure like a diffraction grating that passes onle a limited range of frequencies at a time, the range changing as the grating (it’s actually like the color flare seen if you hold a phonograph record up at a steep angle) is scanned, which the octopus does. The octopus can distinguish between around 7 colors.

  3. ♫ I’ve heard it said,that peo-ple come into our lives for a rea-son. ♪ No, wait! That’s “Wicked”. I meant to say, I heard that XXs see more hues than XYs. Also, that XYs are “ratioed” 85%. Yeah, that’s a dig at currentspeak.

  4. “The big so what?” is a phrase I got tired of hearing in grad school. Not that I didn’t need to hear it on occasion, because I got so fascinated by details that I lost the big picture. Or as Dear Advisor put it once, “This is a lovely description of ten thousand trees. I need to know about the forest.” So what that there are lots of trees? So what that flocks of sheep numbering over 50 thousand per flock overwintered in one small river valley?*

    *It destabilized the soil just as the water in the river was starting to peak, so even though the grasses survived thanks to being dormant, a lot of soil headed east and south, never to be seen again in that region.

  5. Number of available colors may also depend on expected target. For the first time in [mumble] years I am build a scale model aircraft; so, I went of to the local Hobby Lobby to get the necessary paints. Brown was not a color I needed; so, this may just be inattention, but I seem to recall that the modeling section of this particular store stocked more different grays than browns. Perhaps, when painting cars, ships, and planes you may want more shades on gray? Light gray, aluminum, steel were colors I saw that were not on the list above. (And, yes, I realize that the brown list could be expanded too, and that this in no way invalidates the point you are making.)

  6. I once criticized as a story because it described a garish cyberpunk cityscape as having all the colors of the rainbow. . . .

    Part, of course, because the connotations of “rainbow” are wrong, partly because, actually, rainbows are distinctly limited in palette.

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