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Is the colour magenta an illusion?

Team StoryWeavers|July 30, 2021, 11:38 IST|

Meganta an illusion

You must have heard the quote looks can be deceiving, but did you know you’ve been deceived many times in your life? Especially every time you look at colours like Magenta! Puzzled? Read on to find out how ‘impossible colours’ like magenta, a curious sea-dwelling creature and your eyes are all tied together by deception! 

Magenta - An Illusion

Colour magenta – an illusion

Meet the Mantis Shrimp. This crustacean can see colour like no other animal on the planet. These brightly coloured crustaceans live on reefs and are commonly known among fisherman as “thumb splitters” because of their hammer-like claws which can deliver blows that accelerate as fast as a .22-caliber bullet!

Mantis Shrimp

Mantis Shrimp

Researchers have long wondered about why of all the animals, the mantis shrimp’s eye contains twelve colour receptors, nine more than the human eye! As you may know from your biology lessons, colour receptors in the eye observe the visible spectrum of light. They transmit messages to the brain, which then produces the sensation of coloured vision.

Magenta : an illusion

Comparison of human vision vs. mantis shrimp vision

So is it possible that the mantis shrimp can see and perceive colours which humans can’t even conceive? Is there a whole other magnificent rainbow out there with various colours that we just can’t see? The answer to all these questions, anti-climatically enough is – no, they can’t. 

As it turns out, three colour receptors are enough! In fact, on the contrary, even humans can see some colours that technically don’t exist. For example, the colour magenta is just an illusion created by our eyes. This purplish-red-crimson colour, located between red and blue on the colour wheel, is extra special as it is not found on the visible spectrum of light and there is no wavelength of light that corresponds to that particular colour. Rather, it is physiologically and psychologically perceived as a mixture of red and blue. So technically, magenta doesn’t exist!

Our eyes have receptors called cones for three different colours: red, green, and blue. By combining the three colours in different ways, secondary colours can be created. For example, a combination of blue and red makes purple. The way this works is that if the eye reports the red and blue receptors being stimulated, the brain also processes the absence of green. 

This is not only important for being able to interpret colours immediately, but it also allows the brain to correct for different colour temperatures. For instance, our brains report white paper as white even if it were under blue light, despite only activating the blue receptors. Because of this process, we can enable ourselves to see colours that don’t really exist.

By exploiting this fact about how our eyes work and exposing our eyes to bright primary or secondary colours, we can saturate the corresponding cones and thus block out other signals. Looking at the opposite colour on the colour wheel will then produce a colour that is oversaturated – a colour that is imaginary. The effect soon fades, however, as the brain readjusts to the normal world.

Many researchers have criticized this possibility of impossible colours as they believe these are just intermediary colours between two colour cones. However, we do know that people have seen colours that they have never seen before. So, it’s safe to say that impossible colours may not exist, but it’s definitely possible to trick our brains into seeing new hues.

Enjoyed reading this? Also try:

You Can Now Type What You’re Thinking – It’s Called ‘Mindwriting’

Six Facts You Didn’t Know About the Brain

About the Author

Charu, a feminist and an accidental writer, is yet to master the art of writing about herself. Always curious to learn new stuff, she ends up spending a lot of time unlearning the incorrect lessons. She enjoys all sorts of stories – real, fictional, new, old, hers and would love hearing yours too. Feel free to ping her at to share anything that you think is worth sharing.

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