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This Sussex Life: “I’d like to lay to rest the myth that babies only see in black and white”

Alice Skelton

Alice Skelton, 31, who graduates with a Psychology doctorate in infant colour perception at the University of Sussex’s winter graduation this year, has helped researchers to understand how babies’ brains develop and how much they are capable of from as young as four months.

I became a psychologist because I liked the idea that people appear to be very different from each other and yet human behaviour can be measured in a predictable way. When I say the word ‘red’ you know the colour I mean. We do, however, all see and think about colours differently. We have three colour receptors in our eyes, and the ratio of the cells and the number of them varies between us. We all draw the ‘lines’ between colours in slightly different places, from our learned experience. Perhaps my parents taught me that turquoise was blue and yours taught you it was green. Little differences like this can have a big effect on how we think about colour in the world around us.

I was so inspired by Professor Anna FranklinHer work addresses exciting questions, such as what is it that makes us see the world the way we do? And how exactly do humans transition from babyhood to adulthood — from not knowing stuff, to knowing stuff?! I have been supported by two fantastic scientists: my supervisor Anna and also Dr Jenny Bosten. I feel very lucky to have worked with them as they have been excellent role models and have provided guidance to help me succeed and to become a strong scientist. Although the majority of undergraduate students in Psychology are female, women are often underrepresented in senior positions in psychological science. Having great female role models can go a long way to helping readdress this balance.

I grew up in Birmingham and did my undergraduate degree in Leeds in philosophy and psychology. I was drawn to Sussex when I saw the role of Research Assistant with Anna Franklin. I love Sussex — the atmosphere here is amazing. The diversity and breadth of subjects covered in the School of Psychology have been brilliant. I study infant colour perception, but because of everything else going on at the School, I can dip into a lecture on attention, for example, if I want to. I came for a job but then ended up staying and doing a Masters and then a PhD here. I’m excited to be staying at Sussex longer as a post-doctoral researcher to work on cross-cultural studies which will look into the relationship between our experience and our perception.

If there’s one thing I’d like parents to know, it’s that babies are capable of far more than many realise. Just because babies don’t have words to describe what they can think and do, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing so. For example, we used to think that babies wouldn’t be able to group colours together without the language to do so. In fact, babies use their biology to group colours together just like adults do with language. Babies know that two different shades of blue belong to the same group, for example.

Babies will look for longer at the colours that adults are more likely to prefer, which suggests there is an element of colour preference that’s innate. When adults are tested for favourite colours, blue consistently comes top and dark yellow comes last — and our research shows it’s the same for babies.

The main theme running through my research findings has been that you find echoes in adult behaviour in infant responses to colour. These things appear to be in us from birth, and then built upon. Babies use the biological tools with which they are born to make sense of their environment.

The environment we’re born into is hugely informative, and contains lots of reoccurring patterns that we tune in to as adults. We know that people born in an urban environment, whose world is lit by blue skies and yellow sunlight, become less good at differentiating between blues and yellows. We think that’s because the brain learns to filter out tiny differentiations between these colours which have not proven useful. So what happens if you’re born into the lush green environment in Ecuador? How does that affect how you see colour and how your colour differentiation develops? These are among the questions I’m staying at Sussex to try to answer.

I’d like to lay to rest the myth that babies only see in black and white. Newborns can see some colour — particularly red, from birth — they just have to be very intense. It takes three to four months before babies’ colour vision works in the same way as an adult’s, although they still need a bigger difference between colours to be able to see it. They have five colour categories: red, yellow, blue, green and purple whereas in English, adults have eleven.

Posted on behalf of: University of Sussex
Last updated: Tuesday, 22 January 2019