What do the colors pink, gray, and beige have in common?
For one thing, they’re all annoying. I mean, come on…this isn’t rocket science.
But why are they annoying? Why is lilac (RGB = [220, 208, 255]) so insipid? Why does jasmine (RGB = [248, 222, 126]) make one vaguely nauseated? Why is Crayola fuchsia (RGB = [193, 84, 193]) worse than a bout of the common cold? (Use this applet to investigate these combinations.)
My thesis is this: that these colors are so annoying because they’re extra spectral colors. And on some primal, instinctual level, humans don’t like extra spectral colors very much.
In a previous post, I talked about how humans have 3 kinds of cones in their retinas. Roughly speaking, these cones react most strongly with light in the red, green, and blue parts of the visible spectrum. Now, as I mentioned, “color” is a word we give to the sensations that we perceive. Light that has a wavelength of 570 nm, for example, stimulates “red” and “green” cones about equally, and we “see” yellow. That’s why we say that R+G=Y. That’s why we also say that 570 nm light is “yellow” light.
Extra spectral colors are colors that don’t correspond to any one single wavelength of light. They are “real” colors, in the sense that retinal cones get stimulated and our brains perceive something. However, extra spectral colors don’t appear in any rainbow. To make an extra spectral color, more than one wavelength of light must hit our retinas. Our brains then take this data and “create” the color we perceive.
In terms of the RGB color code, extra spectral colors are those in which both R and B (corresponding to the cones at either end of the visible spectrum) are non-zero. And I don’t know about you, but I have a very heavy preference against extra spectral colors.
Now, admittedly, white (RGB = [255,255,255]) is about as extra spectral as you can get. Does white annoy me? Not really; but as a color, it’s also pretty dull. Does anyone paint their bedroom pure white on purpose? Does anyone really want an entirely white car?
But the other extra spectral colors I mentioned earlier are a who’s who of mediocrity. Does anyone older than 16 actually like pink? Has anyone in the history of the world every uttered the sentence, “Gray is my favorite color”? And beige—ugh. Just, ugh.
Standard pink has an RGB code of [255, 192, 203]. Surprisingly, there are combinations that are much, much worse. Hot pink [255, 105, 180] disturbs me. Champagne pink [241, 221, 207] bothers me. Congo pink [248, 131, 121] doesn’t actually make your eyes bleed, but I had to check a mirror to verify this for myself.
Beiges are less offensive, but that’s like saying cauliflower tastes better than broccoli. Of particular note are “mode beige” [150, 113, 23] which used to be called “drab” but was re-branded in Orwellian fashion, and feldgrau [77, 93, 83] which was used in World War II by the German army, in an apparent attempt to win the war by losing the fashion battle.
This is speculation, but I’ve often wondered if these colors bother me because they are stimulating all three kinds of cones in my retina. Maybe in some deep part of the reptilian complex portion of my brain, I know (on an intuitive level) that these colors don’t correspond to any particular wavelength. These colors don’t appear in the rainbow. You can’t make a laser pointer with one of these colors. You can’t have a magenta, or a beige, or a gray photon. And somehow, my aesthetic sense knows this. So when I see the color “dust storm” [229, 204, 201] my limbic system tells me to wince, and I’m saved from even having to know why.
Anyway, I’d be interested in seeing which color(s) bother you the most. I’m going to guess the color(s) are extra spectral.
[Note: my book Why Is There Anything? is now available for download on the Kindle!]