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Study: we're born knowing colors

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New research strongly suggests that the ability to recognize basic colors is hard-wired into our brains from birth. Babies as young as four months old responded to a color despite not having learned the words to describe it, indicating that how we categorize colors is tied to the biology of how we see.

Why it matters: Whether there's a biological basis for universal recognition of colors from birth, or whether we learn how to characterize them after parents and shows like Sesame Street drill them into our heads once we can speak is a debate that has raged for decades. The new study weighs in heavily on the side of the "it's biology" camp, and could lend insight into how we process the world.

How they did it: Researchers showed a particular color to 179 infants 4-6 months old so that they were familiar with it. Then they presented that same color, along with a new color, to the infants. The babies lingered longer on the color they were familiarized with, rather than the new one, meaning that the infant recognized the two as different colors. In other words, they were familiar with "purple" and spent more time looking at it when given a choice later.

Interesting note: The infants distinguished between five basic colors (red, blue, green, yellow and purple) when presented with 14 colors of varying degrees on a color wheel. Those five colors are commonly recognized in dozens of languages in developed and developing nations alike. "The results suggest a biological basis for color categories that is independent of language," the authors wrote.

Another perspective: Researchers not involved in the study told Science the study has some limitations, including that it only looked at infants whose parents spoke English. To extend the results, they said, children in other cultures need to be studied.

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