The Surprising Pattern Behind the Names of Colors Around the World

People in South Korea, where I live, often ask if I don't find the Korean language awfully hard. I reply by asking them what they imagine the most difficult part might be. Almost everyone has the same answer: "There are so many words for colors." (Many add, with a strangely consistent specificity, that there are so many words for yellow.) Though each new language one learns presents a unique set of challenges, that set does invariably include memorizing the names of the colors all over again. And as with any element of grammar or vocabulary, some languages do make this more difficult than others, dividing the visible spectrum up with a set of more numerous, subtler distinctions than those made by one's native tongue.

But then any language, no matter where it originated, ultimately has to describe the very same colors present in the physical world. The Vox video above shows what the ways in which they vary in so doing, and more so the ways in which they don't, reveal about language itself. English has eleven "basic color categories," the video's narrator says, while Russian, for example, has twelve. But some languages, like Wobé of Côte d'Ivoire, have as few as three.

In those cases, language researchers have found that they can predict what those few color categories will be. In the late 1960s, UC Berkeley's Paul Kay and Brent Berlin found that "if a language had six basic color words, they were always for black or dark, white or light, red, green, yellow, and blue. If it had four terms, they were for black, white, red, and then either green or yellow. If it had only three, they were always for black, white, and red." See their book, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution.

So it appears that, though specifics varied, languages tended to come up with their color terms in the same basic order. But "why would a word for red come before a word for blue? Some have speculated that the stages correspond to the salience of the color in the natural environment. Red is in blood and in dirt. Blue, on the other hand, was fairly scarce before manufacturing." Cognitive science and artificial intelligence research further support this hierarchy with red at the top, green and yellow lower down, and blue lower still. This tells us that "despite our many differences across cultures and societies, there is something universal about how humans try to make sense of the world." Something universal, certainly, but an infinitude of small differences as well: therein lies both the challenge and the fascination of not just language but human interaction itself.

Related Content:

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A Pre-Pantone Guide to Colors: Dutch Book From 1692 Documents Every Color Under the Sun

Goethe’s Theory of Colors: The 1810 Treatise That Inspired Kandinsky & Early Abstract Painting

The Vibrant Color Wheels Designed by Goethe, Newton & Other Theorists of Color (1665-1810)

What It’s Like to Be Color Blind and See Art in Color for the First Time

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear Freddie Mercury & Queen’s Isolated Vocals on Their Enduring Classic Song, “We Are The Champions”

In the age of Auto-Tune, it’s a pleasure to have proof that certain greats had no need of pitch correction.

Queen front man Freddie Mercury’s legendarily angelic, five octave-range pipes deliver extra chills on the isolated vocal track for "We Are the Champions.", a free online radio app, stripped the beloved Queen hit of everything but the vocal wave form, then synched it to footage from four concert films and a rare recording session, above.

You’ll also hear backing vocals courtesy of guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, and Mercury himself.

Their practice was to record two takes of each background part—high, medium and low—in unison, yielding an eighteen voice backing choir. Bassist John Deacon, inventor of the Deacy amp, left the singing to his bandmates, though he did compose several of their top ten hits including "You're My Best Friend" and "Another One Bites the Dust."

Cowing though it may be, don’t let these accomplished musicians’ abundance of talent keep you from singing along. Remember that in 2011, a team of scientific researchers voted “We Are the Champions” the catchiest song in pop music history, thanks in part to Mercury’s “high effort” vocals. As participant and music psychologist Daniel Müllensiefen observed:

Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology; from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesisers which can add effects to make a song more catchier. We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, math and cognitive psychology that can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song.

When the audience is allowed in at the three minute mark, you can pretend that that thunderous applause is partly due to you.

Enjoy more Freddie Mercury isolated vocal tracks here and here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A New Series About A Young Crime-Fighting Sigmund Freud Is Coming to Netflix

A recently announced, as-yet-uncast Netflix series centering on the exploits of young, crimefighting Sigmund Freud, tracking a serial killer in 19th-century Vienna, has been causing great excitement.

Though as Chelsea Steiner points out in the Mary Sue, Freud’s equation of clitoral orgasms with sexual immaturity and mental illness could put a damper on any sex scene in which a female character takes an active role.

Perhaps the youthful Father of Psychology won’t be hooking up with his female sidekick—a medium (always so helpful in cases involving serial killers!)

Perhaps instead the real love interest will be the intriguingly named Kiss, a testy war veteran cop. As Freud wrote in a 1935 letter:

Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them. (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime –and a cruelty, too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Havelock Ellis.

The eight-part German-language series will be directed by a Marvin Kren, who seems, in the translated press release, as if he might be equal to the task.

I more or less grew up underneath Sigmund Freud’s original sofa, meaning: in the same district in Vienna where he had his office. The difference: When I was born the world already profited from Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking discoveries for almost a century. We, the modern human beings, live in post-Freudian times. It is very appealing and challenging for me to imagine a world in this series in which the ‘self’ was just a blind spot on the map of cognition, a world that hasn’t seen Sigmund Freud yet. I would like to emerge with ‘Freud’ into Vienna’s dark alleys before the turn of the century, to discover the reflection of the labyrinth of the human soul inspiring his life’s work. Abysmal, dubious and dangerous!

The series will debut on Austrian television. Netflix will control international streaming rights. Production is due to begin this fall.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

What Is ASMR? Watch the The New Yorker’s Introduction to the Whispering & Crinkling Sounds That Help Calm Anxiety and Induce Euphoria

ASMR… is it a medical condition? A sexual fetish? A desire for peace and quiet coupled with an inability to turn off YouTube? Maybe all or none of the above?

Maybe you caught Act One of This American Life’s “Tribes” episode, in which novelist Andrea Seigel describes her passionate need for whispering, and finds a community of people who need the same. She discovered the “tingle” early in life, when a friend came over to inspect her shell collection, describing each item in a gentle whisper and provoking in Seigel an “autonomous sensory meridian response,” a euphoric reaction thousands crave as though it were a drug. They get their fix, as we learn in the New Yorker video above, from videos in which male and female “ASMR artists” gently handle, manipulate, and describe objects in low murmurs.

Sensual sibilance, the sounds of a brush through hair, scissors clipping, plastic quietly crinkling, tapping, spraying… all producing the same effect as Bob Ross’s happy little clouds and trees, a pioneering source of ASMR, though it had not yet been identified as such.

Many of Ross’s viewers were not, in fact, aspiring artists, but people who responded to his calming demeanor and the swishing sounds of his brush on the canvas. (Watch all episodes of his show here.) ASMR artist Maria of the YouTube channel “Gentle Whispering” is not only a purveyor of ASMR sounds, she’s also a client who herself shivers at fingertips on paper and breathy whispers. See one of her videos below (and many more here).

“No one’s been able to unravel the biochemistry or the exact physiological experience that people are having,” says Shenandoah University’s Craig Richard, an ASMR enthusiast. Oxytocin—the “love hormone”—seems to be involved, which may explain why many ASMR videos have a slightly sexy feel to them. Sensation, touch, and closeness define the genre (often hosted by young, conventionally attractive women). ASMR videos may adhere to some specific cultural constructions, but the phenomenon seems real enough. And it has a psychological nemesis, misophonia, “an extreme dislike of certain sounds,” such as just those that set ASMR folks a-tingling.

“How can a sound be so relaxing for group A,” asks Richard, “and really make group B angry?” Maybe there is a genetic component, he speculates. And maybe the popularity of ASMR videos shows a softer, G-rated side of how lonely people meet a need online. ASMR artists “tend to be people with really kind and caring dispositions,” says Richard. “You’re brought into this world and this moment with you and another person. And this person just seems to really care about you.” Role-playing plays a big role in ASMR videos, which can make them seem even more like adult movies.

But it’s not at all about sex, but about intimacy, calm, and connection, which many people understandably hunger for in a noisy, alienating world. As Richard points out, many say that ASMR videos help with anxiety and insomnia. Stressed-out students, single mothers, veterans with PTSD—all have reported finding peace through ASMR. “Our society has become quicker in every possible way,” says Maria. “Everything is pushed to the top, to the limit. ASMR slows down your perception of everything.” It’s a meditative art, she suggests, and an antidote to the brain-scrambling disorientation of contemporary life.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Med Schools Are Requiring Students to Take Art Classes, and How It Makes Med Students Better Doctors

I have followed several debates recently about the lack of arts and humanities education in STEM programs. One argument runs thus: scientists, engineers, and programmers often move into careers designing products for human use, without having spent much time learning about other humans. Without required courses, say, in psychology, philosophy, sociology, literature, etc., students can end up unthinkingly reproducing harmful biases or overlooking serious ethical problems and social inequities.

Technological malpractice is bad enough. Medical malpractice can have even more immediately harmful, or fatal, effects. We might take for granted that a doctor’s “bedside manner” is purely a matter of personality, but many medicals schools have decided they need to be more proactive when it comes to training future doctors in compassionate listening. And some have begun using the arts to foster creative thinking and empathy and to improve doctor-patient communication. The verbally-abusive Dr. House aside, the best diagnosticians actually have sympathetic ears.

As Dr. Michael Flanagan of Penn State’s College of Medicine puts it, “Our job is to elicit information from our patients. By communicating more effectively and establishing rapport with patients so they are more comfortable telling you about their symptoms, you are more likely to make the diagnosis and have higher patient satisfaction.” From the patient side of things, an accurate diagnosis can mean more than “satisfaction”; it can mean the difference between life and death, long-term suffering or rapid recovery.

Can impressionist painting make that difference? Dr. Flanagan thinks it’s a start. His seminar “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” asks fourth-year medical students to engage with the work of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, in exercises “ranging from observation and writing activities to painting in the style of said artists,” notes Artsy. “Through the process, they learn to better communicate with patients by developing insights on subjects like mental illness and cognitive bias.” Why not just study these subjects in psychology courses?

One answer comes from Penn State associate professor of art history Nancy Locke, who presents to Flanagan’s classes. “Art can make people see their lives differently,” she says, “Doctors will see people regularly with certain problems.” And they can begin to schematize their patients the way they schematize diseases and disorders. “But a painting can continue to be challenging, and there are always new questions to ask.” Impressionist painting represents only one road, among many others, to the ambiguities of the human mind.

Another Penn State professor, Dr. Paul Haidet, director of medical education research, offered a seminar on jazz and medical communications to fourth-year students in 2014 and 2015. As he mentions in the video above, Flanagan himself took the course. “Just as one jazz musician provides space to another to improvise,” he tells Penn State News, “as physicians we need to provide space to our patients to communicate in their own style. It was a transformational experience, unlike anything I ever had in medical school myself.” He was inspired thereafter to introduce his painting course.

One could imagine classes on the Victorian novel, modernist poetry, or improvisational dance having similar effects. Other medical schools have certainly agreed. Dr. Delphine Taylor, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, “emphasizes that arts-focused activities are important in training future doctors to be present and aware,” Artsy writes, “which is more and more difficult today given the pervasiveness of technology and media.” Arts programs have also been adopted in the medical schools at Yale, Harvard, and UT Austin.

The precedents for incorporating the arts into a science education abound—many a famous scientist has also had a passion for literature, photography, painting, or music. (Einstein, for example, wouldn’t be parted from his violin.) As the arts and sciences grew further apart, for reasons having to do with the structure of higher education and the dictates of market economies, it became far less common for scientists and doctors to receive a liberal arts education. On the other hand, todays liberal arts students might benefit from more required STEM courses, but that’s a story for another day.

via Artsy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Anna Freud: The Psychoanalyst (and Daughter of Sigmund) Who Theorized Denial, Projection & Other Defense Mechanisms for Our Egos

Being in denial, engaging in projection, rationalizing or intellectualizing events, regressing into childhood, displacing your anger, retreating into fantasy: who among us hasn't been subject to accusations of doing these things at one time or another? And even if you haven't, all of those terms surely sound familiar. They owe their place in the culture in large part to the psychoanalyst Anna Freud, who catalogued these and other "defense mechanisms" in her 1934 book The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense. In her analysis, we engage in these sometimes unpleasant and even embarrassing behaviors to protect our ego — another now-common term that, in Freudian usage, refers to our preferred image of ourselves.

As the daughter of Sigmund Freud, the "father of psychoanalysis," Anna Freud's name carried a considerable weight in the psychoanalytical world. We've previously featured an animated introduction to the work of Freud père from Alain de Botton's The School of Life here on Open Culture, and today we have one from the same source on that of Freud fille.

Together they reveal that, though both Sigmund and Anna Freud worked in the same field, and indeed each did more than their part to develop that field, each of their bodies of work on the human mind stands on its own. And though many terms coined by Sigmund Freud — "Oedipus complex," the "subconscious," and even "id, ego, and superego" — remain in our lexicon, the names Anna Freud gave the defense mechanisms may well see even more everyday use.

You can hear all those mechanisms explained in the video above or read about them in the accompanying article at The Book of Life. "Anna Freud started from a position of deep generosity towards defense mechanisms," it says. "We turn to them because we feel immensely threatened. They are our instinctive ways of warding off danger and limiting psychological pain." Ultimately, her work teaches "a lesson in modesty. For she reveals the extreme probability that defense mechanisms are playing a marked and powerful role in one’s own life – though without it being obvious to oneself that this is so." In other words, you can't, for the most part, help it. That explanation may not get you off the hook the next time someone tells you to stop projecting, intellectualizing, or displacing, but bear in mind that when it comes to defending the ego, no one else can help it either.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Do Our Dreams Predict the Future? Vladimir Nabokov Spent Three Months Testing That Theory in 1964

Photo by NC Mallory via Flickr Commons 

Why keep a dream journal? There's probably amusing befuddlement and even a kind of roundabout enlightenment to be had in looking back over one's subconscious visions, so vivid during the night, that vanish so soon after waking. But now we have another, more compelling reason to write down our dreams: Vladimir Nabokov did it. This we know from the recently published Insomniac Dreams, a collection of the entries from the Lolita and Pale Fire author's dream journal — written, true to his compositional method, on index cards— edited and contextualized by Nabokov scholar Gennady Barabtarlo.

"On October 14, 1964, in a grand Swiss hotel in Montreux where he had been living for three years, Vladimir Nabokov started a private experiment that lasted till January 3 of the following year, just before his wife’s birthday (he had engaged her to join him in the experiment and they compared notes)," writes Barabtarlo in the book's first chapter, which you can read online. "Every morning, immediately upon awakening, he would write down what he could rescue of his dreams. During the following day or two he was on the lookout for anything that seemed to do with the recorded dream."

He wanted to "test a theory according to which dreams can be precognitive as well as related to the past. That theory is based on the premise that images and situations in our dreams are not merely kaleidoscoping shards, jumbled, and mislabeled fragments of past impressions, but may also be a proleptic view of an event to come."  That notion, writes Dan Piepenbring at the New Yorker, "came from J. W. Dunne, a British engineer and armchair philosopher who, in 1927, published An Experiment with Time, arguing, in part, that our dreams afforded us rare access to a higher order of time." The book's fan base included such other literary notables as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley.

Nabokov had his own take on Dunne's theory: "The waking event resembling or coinciding with the dream event does so not because the latter is a prophecy," he writes on the first notecard in the stack produced by his own three-month experiment with time, "but because this would be the kind of dream that one might expect to have after the event." But Nabokov's dream data seem to have provided little in the way in absolute proof of what he called "reverse memory." In the strongest example, a dream about eating soil samples at a museum precedes his real-life viewing of a television documentary about the soil of Senegal. And as Barabtarlo points out, the dream “distinctly and closely followed two scenes” of a short story Nabokov had written 25 years before.

And so we come to the real appeal of Insomniac Dreams: Nabokov's skill at rendering evocative and memorable images in language — or rather, in his polyglot case, languages – as well as dealing with themes of time and memory. You can read a few samples at Lithub involving not just soil but sexual jealousy, a lecture hastily scrawled minutes before class time, the Red Army, and "a death-sign consisting of two roundish golden-yellow blobs with blurred edges." They may bring to mind the words of the narrator of Ada, the novel Nabokov published the following year, who in his own consideration of Dunne guesses that in dreams, “some law of logic should fix the number of coincidences, in a given domain, after which they cease to be coincidences, and form, instead, the living organism of a new truth."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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