The Retinex Theory of Color Vision

The Retinex Theory of Color Vision
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  • 0:00 Definition of the…
  • 1:27 Causes of Retinex Theory
  • 2:08 The Role of the Brain
  • 3:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Linde
Have you ever wondered how you are able to recognize a color even when lighting makes it look different? This lesson explains the retinex theory of color, including the science behind how the brain sees colors.

Definition of the Retinex Theory

We learned our colors in preschool and can tell the difference between black, red, blue, white, and other colors. We use colors to help understand and explain the differences between things. You tell your friend you live in the blue house or explain to a young child that apples are red.

Edwin Land studied light and color for many years. In 1980, he suggested an idea called retinex theory of color to explain how we are able to see colors consistently in spite of differences in light levels. It's an explanation for how parts of the brain change the color the eye sees. The term retinex is a word he coined combining the words retina and cortex. The retina is the part of the eye that detects color, and the visual cortex is the part of your brain that processes the information it receives from the retina.

Whew! Got that? Let's move on.

The level of ambient light can change the appearance of colors. Let's say you take two photographs of a red house, one in full sunlight and the other on a very cloudy day. If you look at the photos side by side, you will see that the color of the house appears different. However, we know that the color of the house didn't change, so we're still able to confidently say, 'The house is red.' The camera records the colors as they actually exist for the given color, light conditions, and other camera settings. How and why does our brain do this override thing?

Causes of Retinex Theory

Our brains do this color recognition thing because doing so makes survival easier. It's much easier to learn that a snake with a specific color combination is poisonous and should be avoided if you can recognize that color combination regardless of the current light levels. Otherwise, to avoid a potential death, you would have to learn the specific color combination in full sunlight, overcast weather, stormy weather, winter sunlight, summer sunlight, dawn and dusk, not to mention the snake species in question will likely have color variation between individuals. Recognizing colors consistently across different ambient light levels helped our ancestors survive, and they passed that ability on to us.

The Role of the Brain

Take a look at this picture below:

color constancy

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