Roses are red, violets are blue, bananas are yellow, and grass is green. For sighted people, nobody questions that they can both know an object’s color and understand the concept of color. But it’s been debated whether blind people understand color the same way that sighted people do. While blind people can learn that roses are red, how deep is this understanding of “redness”?
A team of scientists conducted an experiment in which they asked sighted and blind people a series of questions about objects and their colors. The scientists asked the participants to tell them the color of an object, why it was that color, and the likelihood that two of those same objects would be the same color. Although blind people sometimes gave different answers than sighted people to the first question—disagreeing about the color of an object—their answers to the second two questions were very similar to those of sighted people. For example, even when a blind person said that polar bears were black, they gave a coherent and reasonable explanation for why—to absorb heat and stay warm—showing an understanding of color.
The scientists also asked the participants to guess the consistency of colors of imaginary objects in an “explorer on a remote island” scenario. Participants learned about imaginary objects that were a certain color and were asked whether they thought a similar object would be the same color. The scientists found that blind and sighted people made identical judgements in response, showing that the way blind and sighted people understand color is very similar.
Seeing may be believing, but understanding isn’t limited to sight.