Your Color Perception Changes With the Seasons

By Carl Engelking | August 18, 2015 1:25 pm
(Credit: Victoria Shapiro/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Victoria Shapiro/Shutterstock)

The shifting seasons alter the way we feel about the world, but as it turns out, they also literally change the way we see the world.

Researchers from the University of York in the United Kingdom recently discovered that our vision automatically adjusts the way we perceive colors, particularly yellow, to correspond with the greenery of summer or the grayness of winter.

Mellow Yellow

There’s a seemingly infinite variety of colors in the world, but humans only see four “pure” hues: blue, green, yellow and red. Orange, for example, is perceived as a mixture of red and yellow, and isn’t pure. But the four “pure” colors do not appear to contain mixtures of any other colors.

(Credit: Tudor Catalin Gheorghe/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Tudor Catalin Gheorghe/Shutterstock)

Color, of course, is simply various wavelengths of light in the visual spectrum. Greens and purples are shorter wavelengths, whereas reds and oranges are longer. Color definitions are fluid; individuals and cultures define “pure” blue, green and red at different wavelengths.

However, yellow is a bit unique: Across cultures, everyone settles on a similar wavelength to define pure yellow, even though our eyes are all a little different. Researchers, therefore, wondered if yellow’s stability was a result of the environment, rather than the physiology of the eye.

Tuning In

Researchers recruited 67 volunteers, 45 female, to participate in a simple experiment. Each person entered a darkened room, let their eyes adjust, and were told to adjust the knobs on a colorimeter until they felt they had reached “pure” yellow – unpolluted by hues of green or red. In practice, turning the knobs on a colorimeter is similar to adjusting the color balance on photo editing software.

Participants completed the test in January and again in June. It’s important to note that in York, where the study took place, winters are gray and drab, while summers are flooded with green from an abundance of foliage. Researchers discovered that participants’ perception of pure yellow also shifted with the seasons.


(Credit: CroMary/Shutterstock)

In summer, participants’ definition of yellow shifted toward shorter wavelengths, or a more greenish yellow. In winter, yellow perception shifted toward longer wavelengths, or a reddish yellow. The results of the study were published in the journal Current Biology.


Researchers believe the auto-balancing effect may help us keep our color perception consistent, even when the color palette of our surroundings changes drastically – just like adjusting the picture on your television. Researchers added that it likely takes several weeks for our visual system to re-calibrate to a particular season’s hues.

This newly discovered quirk in color perception probably won’t lead to any medical breakthrough, but it is a colorful example of how our bodies, unbeknownst to us, adapt to changing environments.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • Lorie Franceschi

    The change in seasons, is marked by more green that our eyes “see”. Since yellow is made by the mixing of green and red, yellow looks different because we “see” the photosynthesis of plants (the pigment green) in Spring and Summer. the opposite is true in Fall and Winter, leaves turn colors as their ability to use the Sun to make their food is used up and in winter the leaves have died and fallen off the plants.
    Thus in Spring and Summer, our eyes are seeing too much green and in Fall and Winter no green at all, of course our eyes are going to see yellow differently as the seasons change.

    makes sense if you think about it. dd not need a study that spent all the money they did to tell me this, probably just could ask art students about it and they could give you the answer.

    • Sheila Hotchkiss Rowland

      Yellow is a pure colour and not made by mixing any other colours to produce it. It is a primary colour. Red and green together will give you a dirty brown.
      Try making a colour wheel for yourself.

      • Lorie Franceschi

        primary colors are red, green, and blue. all other colors are made from these three. blue and green make brown

      • Lorie Franceschi

        Look up Primary Colors

        • M.a. Ketchum

          I looked up primary colors because I’ve had some questions about this subject, and discovered you were both right, depending on whether you’re using a subtracting color system or addition system. If you mix lights that are red and green you do get yellow, but mix red and green pigments to paint something and you get brown. I highly recommend googling primary colors, as I learned the primary color wheel question is not all black and white (couldn’t resist, sorry!).

          • Lorie Franceschi

            That is what I found also. That is why I corrected myself and then went with what they have found out about the cones and rods in our eyes. They see green, red, and blue
            I think that is where the first primary color wheel was developed from, our eyes.

        • Sheila Hotchkiss Rowland

          Red, Blue and Yellow are the primary colours. Green, Orange and purple are secondary colours. Meaning the secondaries need two primaries to create them. Did you never make a colour wheel when you were at school.

          • Lorie Franceschi

            Red, Green and Blue look it up
            Yellow. Blue and Red are printer colors not the primary colors look that one up too

  • Graham Houghton

    The difference is the difference between yellow light as in the colour spectrum of a rainbow, and yellow pigments. If you mix red and green pigments you get brown. In the spectrum yellow and orange lie between green and red with yellow on the green side and orange on the red side. Simple.

  • Lorie Franceschi

    Okay, I have done some research over my night time. I have seen primary color wheels that have RGB and also wheels with RYB. Now these are color wheels, but not what the eye sees. Our eyes have rods and cones. Rods see shades of black, plus there are a lot of them in our eyes. Up to 120 million in one eye. Cones are what we use to see the colors other than black
    (which is the absence of color or light). There are only up 7 million cones in one eye. The cones are broken down into three types cones. Cones that detect red are present at about 64%, green about 32% and Blue about 2% ( I know does not add up to 100% but i said “about”.) When we see different amounts of blue and green (this is where I made my mistake, blue and green instead of red and green) our eyes see different shades of yellow. During the Spring and Summer, we have more green than blue light hitting the cones so the yellow shades are different (I believe leaning more towards the green side) and during Fall and Winter there is less green or no green and more blue is picked up by our eyes (there for yellows lean more towards the blue side, water molecules in the air).

    • Graham Houghton

      Glad you’ve done some research Lorie; I think you need to do some more. The reason we have more red cones is part of our primate evolutionary history. As foragers we need to know when fruits are ripe enough to eat and generally red is the colour of ripeness. Black is not a colour, nor is white. The two versions of the colour wheel are because one is for optics (RGB) and the other for pigment (RYB). In actual fact it’s way more complicated than that; far too complicated for a discussion here. Forget not that almost every colour we perceive is reflected light. So a blue flower is only blue to us because it is absorbing all parts of the spectrum except blue. That flower looks very different from a bee’s perspective The only true colours we see are those of the rainbow and even then you and I will see different rainbows. It will be different for every person on Earth. There are seven billion truths out there and rising.

  • Will Spiegelman

    What is a color? The great physicist E Schroeder wrote a fascinating and very foresighted essay on the mind that was published in a small book along with his famous article “What is Life”. In the essay on mind he explored some of the paradoxes and gaps in the hypothesis that mind and matter are separate entities that make up the reality of our experience, such as the lack of a conceivable interface between the two. He also pointed out that there is nothing in the physical model of the universe that can be identified as “yellow” itself (or any other color) Unfortunately, he lacked the knowledge of non dual systems of thought
    that would have lead him to even more interesting discoveries of other perspectives on the reality of experience. Colors have been identified as experiences of visual perception and function in the same was as the basic flavors of taste and individual notes of sound as fundamental cognitions or building blocks of our visual experience. They are intrinsic elements of the mind itself, “built in” to visual awareness itself in the same way as letters form the basis of a language. They are interdependent phenomena, like waves that only occur in the context of mind and have no independent identity. Therefore they cannot be put into words or conceptualized. There is no such thing as a colored object external to the mind . This is another way to “see colors”



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