Color out of Space

Call for help in replicating a truly unique qualia

It is said that it is impossible to imagine a new color that cannot be derived from any other color. True, people tend to cite Magenta as a color with no real bearing on the visible light spectrum (i.e., it’s a fabircation made by our brains to bridge the gap between purple and red, both on the opposide sides of the spectrum), but people have long been fascinated with the idea of something entirely different. For example, authors like H.P. Lovecraft (yes, I know he was a racist. I know what he named his cat. Just bear with me here) have used impossible colors as a plot device. This is not a color that’s unfamiliar to how we’d expect it based on how it appears on earth, it’s completely alien to this reality. While this is impossible, of course, there are a few other thought experiments that are harder to dismiss.

One of my favorite topics in philosophy was the concept of qualia. These are the pure subjective experiences of what we sense, not just the sensory information itself. One of the possibilities I’m fascinated with is the idea of a P-Mutant. The name is similar to that of the P-zombie thought experiment, with a twist. Instead of focusing on the impossibility of knowing if someone has a soul, it focuses on the impossibility of knowing if someone senses the world in the same way you do. For example, we may both have a color spectrum in our minds. We might assign the same names to the same parts. If we both see a stop sign, we might both describe it as “red”. However, aside from all the color itentities corresponding to the same places, I might have no idea how you see the color “red”. You might have perfect color vision like I do, but perhaps what you see as “red” is my “green”, and vice versa. Since everything that you see as “red” is still the same consistent color, I’d have no way of knowing anything was out of the ordinary. It might not stop at being a pallete-swap either. The way your visual cortex is arranged might result in you seeing colors that are qualitatively unlike anything I can imagine. Functionally, this makes no difference in how you operate in the real-world (again, this is assuming you still have perfect color vision). However, if we had some way of tuning into each others’ visual cortexes (the part that’s producing this experience, since the eyes are just light-input channels), only then might we discover these differences.

But aside from these scenarios (seeing an entity from another dimension or hooking up visual cortexes), being able to picture a new color is fundamentally impossible.

…Or so I thought…

A few months ago I did just that: I Imagined a new color.

It hit me in the middle of a lucid dream. At some point, I reached a stage in my lucid dreaming ability where I could manifest the thoughts that make up a dream without the acompanying images. Yes, even as a practicioner, it’s confusing as hell, but it occasionally makes some interesting results. In one such instance, I pictured in my mind a color that had no physical meaning. It was not red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, magenta, brown, white, grey, black, or any combination of those. I can’t even find the words to adequately communicate what it looked like when the visual componet of the thought manifested itself.

Here is my best attempt, though: Picture the visible light spectrum (the canonical red-to-purple spectrum). Picture starting at the very end, at purple. Now, as you make your way from purple, to indigo, to blue, to teal, to green, imagine the rest of the spectrum was not quite linear, but that it had a fork in it. One path goes the usual yellow-orange-red route. The other goes off into an altogether qualitatively different spectrum. it’s not as complete as the more familiar part, but it’s there. This is where I saw the new color. I’ll call this new color “Forkle”, after the mental fork I took in the color spectrum

For some time even after I woke up, I was not quite believing what had happened. But I could still picture a splotch of forkle, which had no other presence in the real world, in my head. This was without a doubt one of the more surreal experiences I’d ever had.

Unfortunately, because I had no real-world associative memory to tie forkle to, my mental image of the color began to fade away. About a month ago, I finally realized I could no longer clearly imagine what distinguished it from any of the other familiar colors.

Aside from documenting this thought, I wrote this entry to call for help. If you know anyone that has made headway (in either a similar setting or not) in picturing novel new colors, I would very much like to meet them. I know of some individuals that have successfully repurposed parts of their brains through rigorous training (e.g., “human calculators” that use some areas typically associated with long-term memory for visualizing 20+ digit numbers). My leading hypothesis is that I was able to catch a glimpse of some kind of neural rewiring, though I still don’t have concrete confirmaiton of this.

If I do take away anything from this experience, it’s that I have a lot more confidence in the P-mutant hypothesis being true than I did before this adventure.


Cited as:

@article{mcateer2013newcolor,
  title   = "Color out of Space: a call for help in replicating a truly unique qualia",
  author  = "McAteer, Matthew",
  journal = "matthewmcateer.me",
  year    = "2013",
  url     = "https://matthewmcateer.me/blog/color-out-of-space/"
}

If you notice mistakes and errors in this post, don’t hesitate to contact me at [contact at matthewmcateer dot me] and I would be very happy to correct them right away!

See you in the next post 😄

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