In an initial experiment, 13 participants had to distinguish between four similar shades of colour. In terms of wavelength, the shades differed from each other in equally-sized, incremental steps, but two of the shades were what we’d call ‘green’, whereas the other two shades were ‘blue’. Consistent with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, participants were quicker at distinguishing between a ‘green’ and a ‘blue’ than between two ‘greens’ or two ‘blues’, but crucially, this advantage only pertained when the colours appeared on the right-hand side of space.
A second experiment showed that this right-hand side advantage for discriminating between shades on either side of the blue/green boundary disappeared when participants were distracted by a simultaneous verbal task, but not when they were distracted by a concurrent spatial task. “The left hemisphere appears to sharpen visual distinctions between lexically defined categories and to blur visual distinctions within these categories, whereas the right hemisphere does so much less”, the researchers said.
If these results can be generalised to the real world, the researchers said “…our representation of the visual world may be, at one and the same time, filtered and not filtered through the categories of language” depending on whether we’re looking to the left or to the right.
Gilbert, A.L., Regier, T., Kay, P. & Ivry, R.B. (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 103, 489-494.
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