How do infants and children see and think about colour?

Anna Franklin
University of Sussex

Colour is a ubiquitous feature of human perceptual experience. Colour provides cues for perceiving and understanding objects and scenes, we talk about colour, have an emotional response to colour, colour is symbolic and has a role in aesthetics. The question of how humans perceive colour is the focus of ongoing research from across many disciplines, involving a broad range of questions, from understanding the neurobiological basis of colour to the use of colour in art. Much of this research focuses on adults’ perception and experience of colour. A parallel stream of research from developmental science is asking questions about colour perception in infants and children. Infants and children have both immature visual systems and less perceptual experience than adults. Investigating their colour perception has potential to provide insight into the mechanisms that underpin human colour perception, as well as the processes that drive perceptual development. Investigating colour perception in infants and children also has potential for informing infant and childcentred design, and for understanding how infants and children interact and respond to the world around them.

In this talk I will review what is known about how infants and children see colour. I will identify the main take home messages from the last few decades of research, and I will also discuss recent studies from our own baby lab. I will tackle 5 main questions. First, when does trichromatic colour vision develop and how does experience shape the development of colour discrimination? Second, when do humans start to develop the ability to use colour cues to perceive and think about objects and their scenes? Third, when and how does colour categorisation develop and what are the challenges for children learning colour terms? Fourth, at what age do colour preferences appear and what influences their development? Finally, on the topic of neurodiversity, how do children with neurodevelopmental disorders perceive colour, and what impact does colour vision deficiency have on children’s wellbeing and educational engagement? I will outline research that has tackled these questions, explain the methods used, and identify the issues on which further research is needed.

The overall message of the talk is that even young infants have the ability to perceive and think about colour, yet their perception of colour is rudimentary and it takes many years, even as late as adolescence, for many aspects of colour perception to mature. I show how this protracted maturation provides an opportunity to understand the relative contributions of biology, culture and environment to human colour perception. I also provide examples of how this research can be applied to the Arts and Industry, for example to ensure that products for infants and children, such as toys, books and art, are designed with their immature colour perception in mind.

Bio:  Professor Anna Franklin investigates human colour perception using methods drawn from cognitive psychology, developmental science and neuroscience. Much of her work investigates the development of colour perception, both to understand perceptual development and to establish the origins and underlying mechanisms of perceptual colour phenomena. She led a six-year European Research Council (ERC) funded project on colour categorisation, with one of the key findings being that infants use the biological mechanisms of colour vision to categorise colour at just four months. She is currently leading another large-scale ERC project which is investigating how colour vision tunes and calibrates to chromatic scene statistics both in adulthood and during early development. Professor Franklin has led several applied projects: She has developed a gamified psychophysical app with her collaborators which tests for colour vision deficiency in young children, and has worked with industrial partners on projects related to infant visual perception and developmental aesthetics.

Read more about The Colour Group at the University of Sussex