Is Your Blue the Same as My Blue?

Jacob Blauvelt, Reporter

The sky appears blue, grass appears green, and a lemon appears yellow. This does not change the fact that color is an illusion. Color as we know it does not exist in the outside world beyond us as gravity and atoms do. Instead, color is formed inside our heads. Our brains convert a certain range of the electromagnetic spectrum into color. We can measure the wavelength of radiation but we cannot observe or measure the experience of a color inside our minds.

When looking at a granny smith apple, a perception would occur that I call green, but in someone else’s brain, a different perception would occur. Which they would have learned to call green. We both call it green, communicate with each other about the color of the granny smith apple, and walk away, never knowing just how different our internal experiences really were.

Of course, we already know that not every person sees color in the same way. One example of this would be color blindness, but we can diagnose and discuss these differences because people with conditions like this fail to see things that most of us can. Conceivably though, there could be ways of perceiving visual content that we use causing colors to look different in other peoples’ minds, without altering their performances on any tests we could come up with. If that were the case, wouldn’t some people think certain color pairings would be more cohesive than others, or wouldn’t some people think that certain lone colors look better than others? Well, yes, but this already happens. This is crucial, showing how fundamentally, in terms of our perceptions, we are all alone in our minds.

Theoretically, let’s say I encountered another life form originating from a distant galaxy, that could fortunately enough, speak English. This “alien” though, had never and could never feel pain. I could explain to the “alien” that pain is sent through our spinal cord, the alien could learn every single pathway and cell, process, or chemical involved in pain. By doing this the “alien” would be able to come to the conclusion that pain for us is generally a bad thing. However, no matter how much it learned, the alien could never feel pain. This is also seen through how we as individuals, cannot experience another person’s pain. We can use tests to help measure what their pain tolerance is, but not what they feel.

These ineffable raw feelings are known as qualia. Our inability to connect physical phenomenon to these raw feelings, to explain and share our own internal qualia (for example what “blue” looks like to you), is known as the Explanatory Gap. This gap is confronted when describing color to someone who has been blind their entire life. Tommy Edison, a popular YouTuber describes what being blind is like. He talks about colors, and how strange and foreign of a concept it is to him. Sighted people try to explain to him that red is hot and blue is cold, but to someone that has never seen a single color, that just seems odd. This explanation has never caused him to see a color, or even visualize one.

Some philosophers argue that qualia may be private and ineffable because of a failure in our own language. This is not because they are necessarily always going to be impossible to share though. There could possibly be a language that when describing color, that could cause them to appear in your mind without you actually ever needing to see the color yourself, or without your retinas being involved at all. If this was possible, you could figure out that no, or yes, in fact, you and your friend do see the same blue after all. But for now, it remains the case that we have no way of knowing if my blue is the same as your blue.

Maybe one-day language will allow us to share and find out, or maybe it never will. Even though we do not have an answer, which can be frustrating, the mere fact that we can ask each other about internal experiences, and we can wonder about the concept of qualia, is incredible and also quite… human.

Animals can do all sorts of things that we as humans do; use tools, problem solve, cooperate, communicate, and exhibit curiosity. Apes have even been taught to use language to communicate with humans. It’s a sort of sign language they have used to do everything from answer questions to express emotions or even produce thoughts. But there is something that no signing ape has never done, no ape has ever asked a question. The apes have never wondered out loud about anything that we might know that they don’t.

Now, this does not mean that apes and other animals are not curious, because they obviously are. This does suggest that they lack a theory of mind, in understanding that other people have separate minds, that they have the knowledge, access to information that you might not have. Apes that know sign language but never ask questions fail to recognize that other individuals shave similar cognitive abilities and can be used as sources of information.

So, we are all alone with our perceptions, we are alone in our minds. We can both agree that a piece of pizza tastes good, but one cannot get into another’s brain and experience how the pizza tastes to you. I can never know if my blue looks the same as your blue, but I can ask. So, stay curious, always ask, and let the entire world know that you are, indeed one in your own mind.



Works Cited

“Facts About Color Blindness.” National Eye Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human    Services, 1 Feb. 2015,

Nida-Rümelin, Martine. “Qualia: The Knowledge Argument.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 3 Sept. 2002,

TommyEdisonXP. “The Tommy Edison Experience.” YouTube,

Wayman, Erin. “Six Talking Apes.”, Smithsonian Institution, 11 Aug. 2011,