Opponent-Process Theory

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tara DeLecce

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

If you stare at a green dot for about a minute, then turn your gaze toward a white wall, you should see a red afterimage. The experience of afterimages is a fairly common one among humans, and in this lesson we will talk about how the brain creates them.

What Is Opponent-Process Theory?

In 1874, a German physiologist researching the functions of the eye named Ewald Hering noticed that there are certain color combinations that are never seen, such as reddish-green or bluish-yellow. From this observation, he proposed opponent-process theory, which states that we perceive color in terms of opposite ends of the spectrum: red to green, yellow to blue, and white to black.

It is through this theory that we can explain afterimages, or when we keep seeing the same image after it's vanished. For example, if you stare at something red for a minute then avert your eyes toward a white surface then you will see a green afterimage. If you stare at a blue circle you will see a yellow afterimage, and if you stare at a white dot you will see a black afterimage.

You can see this more clearly from the picture here.

Color Afterimage American Flag

Stare at the white dot in the middle of the flag for about a minute. Afterwards, move your eyes to a white surface. You should see an afterimage of the flag in the colors of red, white, and blue so that it looks like the actual American flag.

How Opponent-Process Theory Works

While other theories of color vision explain how color is processed by the eye, opponent-process theory explains how it is processed by the brain. Once information about color is detected by the retina, or the membrane in the back of the eye, that information is sent to an area of the brain called the thalamus. The thalamus is responsible for receiving all the information from the sensory organs (eyes, ears, etc.) and forwarding that information to the correct part of the brain that processes it. In this case, the thalamus sends visual information to the visual cortex of the brain. Within the thalamus, there is a cluster of brain cells referred to as the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), which is responsible for the opponent-processing of colors and the afterimage effect.

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