The Fascinating Way That Words Can Change How We Perceive Colors

iStock
iStock

The colors we see in the world aren't only a function of our eyesight. The language we speak can impact the colors we recognize, as Lancaster University researchers Aina Casaponsa and Panos Athanasopoulos explain on The Conversation.

The number of words a given language has for colors can vary widely, from only a few—the Bassa language, spoken in Liberia, has two terms, one for the warm end of the color spectrum and one for the cool end—to languages like English (up to 11 terms) and Japanese (16 terms, as a 2017 study found).

Researchers have even proposed a hierarchy related to which colors a language names depending on the total terms it has. If a language only has two terms, they are almost always related to black and white (dark and light). If they have three, that third color is almost always red. And so on into green, yellow, and blue.

Which colors have names in a particular language influences the colors we see. Japanese, Russian, and Greek, for instance, include terms that differentiate between light blue and dark blue. While an English speaker might look at a sky blue shirt and a navy blue shirt and say, "Look, a pair of blue shirts!" a Japanese speaker would disagree, just as we might disagree with someone who speaks Bassa about whether red, orange, and yellow are all one color. However, if you spend enough time immersed in a language that has fewer color terms, it appears that the way you describe color may narrow—according to one study, Greek speakers who spend a lot of time in the UK tend to stop distinguishing between two different blues, ghalazio and ble, and begin lumping them into a single category of blue.

The impact goes beyond shirts, of course. While modern Japanese has two distinct words for blue and green, Old Japanese had one term for both of them, ao. This historic link between the two colors still exists in some uses. Japanese stoplights use ao as the color for "go"—meaning that sometimes, they use blue instead of green. Several other languages historically had one term that can refer to either green or blue—what linguists call "grue"— including Vietnamese, Welsh, and Pashto.

It seems that in general, we are better at distinguishing between warm colors like red and yellow than cool colors like blue and green. In an October 2017 study, cognitive scientists found that across languages and cultures, people tend to find it easier to communicate about warm colors than cool when given a grid of colored chips. The researchers hypothesized that the colors we are able to describe have to do with what's important to us: "Objects (what we talk about) are typically warm-colored, and backgrounds are cool-colored." They also suggested that the reason some languages develop more color words than others has to do with industrialization.

After studying Bolivian Spanish speakers, the Amazonian hunter-gatherer group called Tsimane' that has relatively few color categories, and English speakers in Boston, researchers found that the Tsimane' people did not often describe familiar natural objects (like, say, an unripe banana) using color, but they used more color words to describe artificially colored objects (like a red cup). Industrialization, they hypothesized, increases how useful language for color is, since the only way to distinguish between certain objects (plastic cups, for instance) might be by their color.

[h/t BBC]

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

NASA Reveals How Living in Space for a Year Affected Scott Kelly’s Poop

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

When you agree to be part of a yearlong space study, you forfeit some right to privacy. In astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, the changes his body endured while spending a year at the International Space Station (ISS) were carefully analyzed by NASA, then published in a scientific journal for all to see. Kelly submitted blood samples, saliva samples, and cheek swabs. Even his poop was subjected to scrutiny.

As PBS reports, Scott Kelly’s fecal samples revealed that his gut microbiome underwent significant but reversible changes during his time in orbit. In what was surely good news for both Kelly and NASA, his gut bacteria didn’t contain anything “alarming or scary,” according to geneticist Martha Hotz Vitaterna, and it returned to normal within six months of landing on Earth.

Even after being subjected to the challenging conditions of space, “Scott’s microbiome still looked like Scott’s microbiome, just with a space twist on it,” said Vitaterna, who was one of the study’s authors.

The fecal probe was one small part of a sweeping NASA study that was just published in the journal Science, more than three years after Kelly’s return. Dubbed the Twins Study, it hinged on the results of Kelly’s tests being compared with those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as the control subject.

NASA’s goal was to gain insight into the hazards that astronauts could face on proposed long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. The agency has gone to great lengths to get this information, including offering to pay people $18,500 to stay in bed for two months in order to replicate the conditions of anti-gravity.

It also explains why NASA was willing to launch unmanned rockets into space to collect samples of Kelly’s poop. On four different occasions at the ISS, Kelly used cotton swabs to pick up poo particles. When the rockets arrived to drop off lab supplies, they returned to Earth with little tubes containing the swabs, which had to be frozen until all of the samples were collected. The process was tedious, and on one occasion, one of the SpaceX rockets exploded shortly after it launched in 2015.

The study also found that his telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes, had lengthened in space, likely due to regular exercise and a proper diet, according to NASA. But when Kelly returned to Earth, they began to shorten and return to their pre-spaceflight length. Shorter telomeres have a correlation with aging and age-related diseases. “Although average telomere length, global gene expression, and microbiome changes returned to near preflight levels within six months after return to Earth, increased numbers of short telomeres were observed and expression of some genes was still disrupted,” researchers wrote.

Researchers say more studies will be needed before they send the first human to Mars. Check out NASA's video below to learn more about what they discovered.

[h/t PBS]

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