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The biological basis and perceptual impact of categorisation: the case of colour.

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The grouping of discriminable entities or sensations into categories provides essential structure for thought and language, enabling efficiency in both cognition and communication. The domain of colour has provided a fertile testing ground for questions on how the human mind categorises sensory continua, and on the effect of categories on perception. There has been much debate about whether categorisation of the continuum of colour into categories such as red, green, blue is arbitrary or whether colour categories are determined by our visual system. Variation in how languages categorise colour (in colour lexicons) has been taken as evidence for the former hypothesis. Several have also claimed that such linguistic variation in colour categorisation causes speakers of different languages to ‘see’ colour differently from each other. In this talk I will present new evidence from our ERC funded ‘CATEGORIES’ project which challenges both of these arguments. I will draw on experiments that use a diverse range of methods such as infant testing, neuroimaging, psychophysics, cross-cultural fieldwork, and experiments with colour vision deficient observers. I will present evidence which suggests that colour categories partly arise from the two neural subsystems responsible for early colour representation. I will also present converging evidence that cultural variation in how we talk about colour has minimal impact on the sensory and perceptual stages of colour discrimination, but that colour naming does relate to other aspects of colour perception such as colour constancy and preference.

Biography Professor Anna Franklin is leader of The Sussex Colour Group ( in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. She completed an Undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Nottingham in 2000, and a PhD on colour perception at the University of Surrey in 2003. Following an ESRC post-doctoral fellowship, she took up a faculty position at the University of Surrey where she stayed until 2011. In 2011 she spent a year as a Visiting Scholar at the University of California Berkeley, where she discussed and collaborated on research projects with eminent scientists from multiple disciplines such as vision scientist Professor Steve Palmer, linguist Professor Paul Kay and cognitive scientist Professor Terry Regier. On her return to the UK she took up a faculty position at the University of Sussex and established The Sussex Colour Group. She was promoted to Professor in 2015. The main aim of her research is to understand how we perceive, think and talk about colour. Her research draws on a diverse range of methods to investigate this, including experiments with infants, neuroimaging methods and cross-cultural fieldwork. She is a recipient of an ERC Starting Grant, currently in its final year, which aims to establish the origin of colour categorisation, and she also currently holds an ERC Proof of Concept grant which aims to develop a new test of colour vision deficiency suitable for infants and young children.

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