The Colour Group – A Medievalist’s Perspective

On Wednesday the 13th of March, Hannah Smithson hosted The Colour Group at Pembroke College in Oxford; this particular collective consisted of physicists, psychologists, biologists and one lone medieval art historian (a paper for which I had anxiously waited for all day). The central theme up for discussion was “colour cues to material properties” which, for those of us without a science degree, was essentially an investigation into how we perceive “what things are made of”, and how colour, shape and texture can interact to affect our perception. This meant over the course of the day I was exposed to many different ideas on how luminosity, gloss, and colour boundaries affect our perception of the world around us.

The debates ranged from “just what do we mean by ‘gloss’ anyway?” to “have we adapted to see better in blue shifted light thanks to living 1000’s of years under a blue sky?”  – answers to which provoked heated debate in my fellow attendees. Highlights of the day for me were Professor Roland W. Fleming’s paper, “Internal Models and the Perception of Material Properties” which argued for a different definition of what colour scientists call ‘gloss’  – the specifics of which went way over this medievalist’s head – but essentially argued that the human brain does not compute vast algorithms designed to ‘correctly’ interpret a visual image in terms of physical parameters of the world; instead it forms the visual percept through a statistical model that the brain constantly updates through its experiences. In other words, you see one example of a shape or colour – then you see another – the brain then computes the statistical likelihood of what comes in-between and fills in the blanks. In this way we identify what we see on an ad-hoc basis – rather than with an inbuilt encyclopedia of what everything looks like.  With me so far? Later on in the day I would do battle with Professor Fleming, playing chess over a pint, in which I suffered a resounding defeat; I feel my brain clearly did not correctly compute the statistical likelihood of where my glass king was on the board.

The second highlight was Dr Bob Kentridge, a Durham compatriot and psychologist, who presented a paper revealing areas of the brain that activate when a person is perceiving something; the big reveal mainly being that there are separate areas of the brain that perceive colour, texture, shape and light. This for me was just really interesting and I enjoyed learning about the visual cortex (it is something that rarely comes up in medieval manuscripts).

If you think the day was all about mathematical models and computational nightmares, think again; Professor Dave Perrett gave some pretty convincing evidence that eating fruit and vegetables changes your skin pigment to a more pleasant skin tone – and that a slightly yellower complexion is more sexually attractive, much to the chagrin of northerners everywhere. Needless to say I hit the salad bowel pretty sharpish afterwards.

The last presentation of the day was given by Dr Jim Harris, a medieval art historian, and at last I was given a paper I could truly get behind! Nothing like spending 40 minutes looking at beautiful Gothic architecture, alabaster sculpture and early Italian renaissance art.

As the representative for “The Ordered Universe Project/Durham Grosseteste Project” I went down there with the aim of promoting the interdisciplinary nature of the project, and I hope I succeeded – at the very least I educated a few in the ways of Grosseteste. There was debate about the merit of empirical and logical arguments over dinner, just how revolutionary Grosseteste was or wasn’t,  and whether perception of colour has changed over the centuries.

The conference proved to be an exciting and stimulating event and it reinforced for me the need for the humanities and the sciences to work together more often; just as a medieval scholar must know the seven liberal arts no matter his particular leaning, so must we broaden our approach to history by incorporating modern science into our understanding of the previous conceptual models of the universe.

Sam Sargeant

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