The Fiction Faction

Have you ever noticed that when you’re reading, the power of your imagination is so intense that it has the ability to recall and replicate certain sensations as they’re described in the book?

For example, read about the taste of an apple and your body begins to trick itself into tasting an apple. But what happens when books describe something that the body has never experienced before? Something like a brand new colour?

Chances are you’ve never heard of the fourth primary colour Squant, the dark saturated red Sangoire or even the shade of blue called Hooloovoo. But you’d be forgiven for such ignorance as these colours only exist in fictional film or literature and the imaginations of its audience. A more infamous example is probably Terry Pratchett’s ‘Octarine’ from his Discworld series. In the books, Octarine is the eighth colour of the spectrum, is the colour of magic, and is described as being a greenish yellow-purple colour… in other words, impossible to replicate in the real world. Or is it?

Making up names and describing colours that don’t exist isn’t such a wild idea. Colour is, after all, a spectrum of perception and there is an enormous variety of shades and hues that the naked human eye cannot perceive. Humans, along with some other primates, are normally trichromatic meaning they have three cone cells in their eyes that are used to pick up colour (red, blue, green). These three cone cells allow us to detect roughly one million hues although on average woman can see up to 50 shades more than the average male. It also doesn’t help that more men than women suffer from some form of colour blindness which probably explains why a lot of men need help choosing the right tie each morning.

Recently, however, colour vision researcher Dr Gabriel Jordan in the UK discovered the existence of what she called a tetrachromat – someone who has four cone cells in their eyes. This one additional cone cell means that the owner, a woman, can see 99 million additional colours not visible to the average person. Some of which could potentially be considered a shade of Octarine or Squant?

Discoveries in colour perception such as this, and similarly other cognitive and visual peculiarities such as Colour Blindness, Synesthesia or Tetrachromacy teach us that colour is never ‘black and white’, and cannot be viewed with standardised measures. Unlike humans many animals including some species of spiders, most marsupials, birds, reptiles, and many species of fish, enviably perceive a much wider range of colours.

When Douglas Adams, author of the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series speaks of a ‘super intelligent’ shade of blue he names Hooloovoo, or Reese from Malcolm in the Middle mixes blue and yellow to create Blellow, naturally we laugh. But as the world is rich in biodiversity with species yet to be discovered, is it not too much to ask that the colour spectrum is only limited by ourselves and our understanding?

Next time you are flicking through a science fiction novel, scanning the net or watching some fantastic film that makes reference to an absurd colour, that sight has not seen nor ear heard, pause for a moment and wonder if this colour is science fact, waiting to be proven.