Research Article: The Color “Fruit”: Object Memories Defined by Color

Date Published: May 22, 2013

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): David E. Lewis, Joel Pearson, Sieu K. Khuu, Linda Chao.


Most fruits and other highly color-diagnostic objects have color as a central aspect of their identity, which can facilitate detection and visual recognition. It has been theorized that there may be a large amount of overlap between the neural representations of these objects and processing involved in color perception. In accordance with this theory we sought to determine if the recognition of highly color diagnostic fruit objects could be facilitated by the visual presentation of their known color associates. In two experiments we show that color associate priming is possible, but contingent upon multiple factors. Color priming was found to be maximally effective for the most highly color diagnostic fruits, when low spatial-frequency information was present in the image, and when determination of the object’s specific identity, not merely its category, was required. These data illustrate the importance of color for determining the identity of certain objects, and support the theory that object knowledge involves sensory specific systems.

Partial Text

Color can be highly informative of an object’s identity. Accordingly, most animals have some ability to perceive color, including mammals which typically have dichromatic color vision [1], [2]. The trichromatic color vision of humans and other primates is a relatively new genetic development, allowing for improved discrimination between various shades of red and green [3]. This evolution is theorized to have been driven by the color of tropical fruits [4]–[6], resulting in the development of a visual system especially well tuned to long wavelength colors (red, orange and yellow), which often signal the most nutritious fruit [7]. These evolutionary theories of color vision have gained popularity and support in recent years, but typically make no attempt to explain contributions of higher-level cognitive processes, such as how an object’s color information is encoded, organized and recalled from memory.

This study demonstrates the priming of object recognition using known color associates. Facilitating the recognition of achromatic objects through prior exposure to a known color associate provides evidence of a functional relationship between the processing of color perception and color knowledge (eg. memory). This novel finding was observed using fruit stimuli and appears to have been driven by the color diagnosticity of the fruit objects, the low spatial-frequency information of their images, and the level of identity specificity required for the recognition task. To aid in the demonstration of these color priming effects the current study specifically utilized a within-subjects design, small sample-size, and selective range of stimuli. Unfortunately these design choices limit the generality of the current findings. While future studies are required to fully explain the driving forces of color associate priming—color diagnosticity, spatial-frequency, and identity specificity have been positively identified as contributing factors and are discussed in detail below.

Colorless object images can be primed by the prior presentation of their known color associates. This color associate priming is based entirely on the color information stored within object knowledge. Three factors that have an influence on this color priming have been identified: the color-diagnosticity of the objects, their spatial-frequency information, and the required level of identification specificity. These findings are in line with the previous behavioral research, and provide support for the theory that object knowledge is grounded within modality specific systems [28], [51] by demonstrating an interaction between the processing of color perception and object knowledge.