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Trichromatic Theory of Color Vision

Melissa Bialowas, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Melissa Bialowas

    Melissa Bialowas has taught preschool through high school for over 20 years. She specializes in math, science, gifted and talented, and special education. She has a Master's Degree in Education from Western Governor's University and a Bachelor's Degree in Sociology from Southern Methodist University. She is a certified teacher in Texas as well as a trainer and mentor throughout the United States.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Understand what is the Young Helmholtz trichromatic theory of color vision. Learn about the history behind this theory. See a comparison of trichromatic theory and opponent-process theory. Updated: 10/06/2021

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Trichromatic Theory of Color Vision

The prefix "tri" means three, and the root "chroma" means color, so trichromatic means three colors. The trichromatic theory of color vision is a theory that states there are three different color receptors in the retina. The cones in the retina are what give color vision. This theory says the cones are sensitive to three different colors: green, blue, and red. When these colors are combined, eyes can tell a difference between millions of colors.

This theory was first suggested by Thomas Young and Hermann Von Helmholtz. Thomas Young was the first to theorized three color receptors present in human eyes, each sensitive to a different wavelength of light: short, medium, and long. Decades later, Hermann Von Helmholtz set up a series of experiments to test the theory and found it was accurate. He was better at identifying the wavelengths and proved that having only one or two of three photoreceptors made it impossible to match colors accurately. Accordingly, the theory is sometimes called the Young Helmholtz Trichromatic Theory or the Young Helmholtz Theory. It is recognized in multiple science disciplines, from anatomy and biology's study of the body and its parts to psychology's understanding of how the brain understands the inputs from our senses.

Thomas Young Findings

Thomas Young theorized trichromatic theory in 1802.

Thomas Young

Thomas Young was the oldest of ten children, but he was not raised by either of his parents. He moved between family members and boarding schools during his childhood. He was recognized as a young genius but had difficulty in many schools due to thinking about large abstract concepts rather than the subjects which were being taught. He enjoyed studying medicine, physics, and many languages. After dissecting an ox's eye, he became fascinated by the way we understand color. In late 1801, he presented his research "On the theory of light and colors", which was later published in 1802. That proposed the theory of three-color vision.

In his paper, he explained how he had two pinholes on a screen and allowed light to pass through. He was able to make the light beams spread apart or overlap. He established that light is a wave. This wave theory helped him explain how one can see colors in water bubbles. He said colors would each have different wavelengths. He also calculated the wavelengths of the colors, which Newton recognized. He used this research to determine that by having three specific color receptors, human eyes would be able to see all of the different colors.

Thomas Young was also the first person to describe astigmatism. In his spare time, he studied Egyptian hieroglyphics and helped to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Later in his career, Young studied elasticity and even has a constant in the equation that describes elasticity named Young's modulus. After a healthy life, he became sick and died only three months later at 56. He was not highly recognized for his discoveries during his lifetime, and very few people took note of his passing.

Hermann Von Helmholtz Research

Hermann Von Helmholtz performed experiments in the 1850s.

Hermann Von Helmholtz

Hermann Von Helmholtz was born Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand Helmholtz in Prussia (now Germany). His father was an educator and wanted his eldest child to become a doctor. After attending medical school, he served in the military, but he used his spare time to complete many experiments. He had major contributions to the fields of electrodynamics, mathematics, meteorology, optics, and physiology.

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  • 0:04 Young-Helmholtz…
  • 1:16 Thomas Young
  • 2:15 Hermann von Helmholtz
  • 3:39 The Trichromatic Color Theory
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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the trichromatic theory in psychology?

The trichromatic theory in psychology is how the brain understands and interprets the colors that it sees. It reinforces the anatomy and biology theory by the same name.

What are the three trichromatic colors?

The three trichromatic colors are blue, green, and red. These three colors can be combined to make all of the colors that are on the white light spectrum.

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