Young-Helmholtz Theory of Color Perception

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  • 0:02 The Young-Helmoltz Theory
  • 0:28 Color Perception in the Eye
  • 2:05 Color Blindness
  • 2:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

In this lesson, we'll explore the Young-Helmholtz theory of color perception while examining components in the eye to see how it works. We'll also use this theory to explain color blindness.

The Young-Helmholtz Theory

The Young-Helmholtz theory is named after the two scientists who proposed it in the 1800s, Thomas Young and Hermann von Helmholtz. The theory postulates that we perceive color in terms of how certain color receptors in the eye pick up on certain colors. Specifically, the theory identifies three types of color receptors: ones that pick up on red, ones that pick up on blue, and ones that pick up on green.

Color Perception in the Eye: How It Works

In order to explain the Young-Helmholtz theory more clearly, we should talk a little bit more about the anatomy of the eye itself. The eye has a lens, much like a camera does, which acts like a projector. The lens projects a miniature version of the image it sees onto the back of the eyeball, which is known as the retina. You can think of the retina as a projector screen; however, this particular projector screen is much more sophisticated and contains many different types of receptors that process different aspects of the image it receives.

The two main types of receptors that are needed for color vision are rods and cones, which are named according to their shape. Rods are important for seeing black, white, and gray. Cones, on the other hand, are more important for seeing all the colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). The cones are further divided into three types as described by the Young-Helmholtz theory, with one type of cone responsible for processing red, another type for green, and a third for blue.

At this point, you may be wondering how your eye is capable of seeing the whole spectrum of other colors besides blue, green, and red if it only has cones responsible for those three. The answer is that other colors are perceived by activating a combination of two of the cone types. For example, yellow is produced by a combination of both red-sensitive and green-sensitive cones. When red-sensitive and blue-sensitive cones are stimulated, you will perceive the color magenta. Finally, when all three of your cones are active, you will see white. In fact, it has been discovered that we can discriminate more than one million different color variations.

Color Blindness

Color blindness is not a condition in which people can only see the world in shades of black, white, and gray. It is more common, rather, to see the world in blues, yellows, and shades of gray, and it's often marked by an inability to distinguish between red and green.

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