Color and Depth Perception

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the trichromatic theory of color vision and the opponent-process theory
  • Describe how monocular and binocular cues are used in the perception of depth

We do not see the world in black and white; neither do we see it as two-dimensional (2-D) or flat (just height and width, no depth). Let’s look at how color vision works and how we perceive three dimensions (height, width, and depth).

Color Vision

Normal-sighted individuals have three different types of cones that mediate color vision. Each of these cone types is maximally sensitive to a slightly different wavelength of light. According to the Young-Helmholtz trichromatic theory of color vision, shown in Figure 1, all colors in the spectrum can be produced by combining red, green, and blue. The three types of cones are each receptive to one of the colors.

A graph is shown with “sensitivity” plotted on the y-axis and “Wavelength” in nanometers plotted along the x-axis with measurements of 400, 500, 600, and 700. Three lines in different colors move from the base to the peak of the y axis, and back to the base. The blue line begins at 400 nm and hits its peak of sensitivity around 455 nanometers, before the sensitivity drops off at roughly the same rate at which it increased, returning to the lowest sensitivity around 530 nm . The green line begins at 400 nm and reaches its peak of sensitivity around 535 nanometers. Its sensitivity then decreases at roughly the same rate at which it increased, returning to the lowest sensitivity around 650 nm. The red line follows the same pattern as the first two, beginning at 400 nm, increasing and decreasing at the same rate, and it hits its height of sensitivity around 580 nanometers. Below this graph is a horizontal bar showing the colors of the visible spectrum.

Figure 1. This figure illustrates the different sensitivities for the three cone types found in a normal-sighted individual. (credit: modification of work by Vanessa Ezekowitz)

The trichromatic theory of color vision is not the only theory—another major theory of color vision is known as the opponent-process theory. According to this theory, color is coded in opponent pairs: black-white, yellow-blue, and green-red. The basic idea is that some cells of the visual system are excited by one of the opponent colors and inhibited by the other. So, a cell that was excited by wavelengths associated with green would be inhibited by wavelengths associated with red, and vice versa. One of the implications of opponent processing is that we do not experience greenish-reds or yellowish-blues as colors. Another implication is that this leads to the experience of negative afterimages. An afterimage describes the continuation of a visual sensation after removal of the stimulus. For example, when you stare briefly at the sun and then look away from it, you may still perceive a spot of light although the stimulus (the sun) has been removed. When color is involved in the stimulus, the color pairings identified in the opponent-process theory lead to a negative afterimage. You can test this concept using the flag in Figure 2.

An illustration shows a green flag with a thick, black-bordered yellow lines meeting slightly to the left of the center. A small white dot sits within the yellow space in the exact center of the flag.

Figure 2. Stare at the white dot for 30–60 seconds and then move your eyes to a blank piece of white paper. What do you see? This is known as a negative afterimage, and it provides empirical support for the opponent-process theory of color vision.

But these two theories—the trichromatic theory of color vision and the opponent-process theory—are not mutually exclusive. Research has shown that they just apply to different levels of the nervous system. For visual processing on the retina, trichromatic theory applies: the cones are responsive to three different wavelengths that represent red, blue, and green. But once the signal moves past the retina on its way to the brain, the cells respond in a way consistent with opponent-process theory (Land, 1959; Kaiser, 1997).

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Depth Perception

Our ability to perceive spatial relationships in three-dimensional (3-D) space is known as depth perception. With depth perception, we can describe things as being in front, behind, above, below, or to the side of other things.

Our world is three-dimensional, so it makes sense that our mental representation of the world has three-dimensional properties. We use a variety of cues in a visual scene to establish our sense of depth. Some of these are binocular cues, which means that they rely on the use of both eyes. One example of a binocular depth cue is binocular disparity, the slightly different view of the world that each of our eyes receives. To experience this slightly different view, do this simple exercise: extend your arm fully and extend one of your fingers and focus on that finger. Now, close your left eye without moving your head, then open your left eye and close your right eye without moving your head. You will notice that your finger seems to shift as you alternate between the two eyes because of the slightly different view each eye has of your finger.

A 3-D movie works on the same principle: the special glasses you wear allow the two slightly different images projected onto the screen to be seen separately by your left and your right eye. As your brain processes these images, you have the illusion that the leaping animal or running person is coming right toward you.

Although we rely on binocular cues to experience depth in our 3-D world, we can also perceive depth in 2-D arrays. Think about all the paintings and photographs you have seen. Generally, you pick up on depth in these images even though the visual stimulus is 2-D. When we do this, we are relying on a number of monocular cues, or cues that require only one eye. If you think you can’t see depth with one eye, note that you don’t bump into things when using only one eye while walking—and, in fact, we have more monocular cues than binocular cues.

Watch It

The following video of anamorphic art demonstrates how we rely on these monocular cues to see depth, even when the depth is only imagined.

You can view the text alternative for “Amazing Anamorphic Illusions!” (opens in new window).


An example of a monocular cue would be what is known as linear perspective. Linear perspective refers to the fact that we perceive depth when we see two parallel lines that seem to converge in an image (Figure 3). Some other monocular depth cues are interposition, the partial overlap of objects, the relative size and closeness of images to the horizon, relative size, and the variation between light and shadow.

A photograph shows an empty road that continues toward the horizon.

Figure 3. We perceive depth in a two-dimensional figure like this one through the use of monocular cues like linear perspective, like the parallel lines converging as the road narrows in the distance. (credit: Marc Dalmulder)

Dig Deeper: Stereoblindness

Bruce Bridgeman was born with an extreme case of lazy eye that resulted in him being stereoblind, or unable to respond to binocular cues of depth. He relied heavily on monocular depth cues, but he never had a true appreciation of the 3-D nature of the world around him. This all changed one night in 2012 while Bruce was seeing a movie with his wife.

The movie the couple was going to see was shot in 3-D, and even though he thought it was a waste of money, Bruce paid for the 3-D glasses when he purchased his ticket. As soon as the film began, Bruce put on the glasses and experienced something completely new. For the first time in his life he appreciated the true depth of the world around him. Remarkably, his ability to perceive depth persisted outside of the movie theater.

There are cells in the nervous system that respond to binocular depth cues. Normally, these cells require activation during early development in order to persist, so experts familiar with Bruce’s case (and others like his) assume that at some point in his development, Bruce must have experienced at least a fleeting moment of binocular vision. It was enough to ensure the survival of the cells in the visual system tuned to binocular cues. The mystery now is why it took Bruce nearly 70 years to have these cells activated (Peck, 2012).

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Photos in this activity from of GlacierNPS, Alicia Nijdam, KlipschFan, scillystuff, rhondawebber (CC-BY-2.0)

Integration with Other Modalities

Vision is not an encapsulated system. It interacts with and depends on other sensory modalities. For example, when you move your head in one direction, your eyes reflexively move in the opposite direction to compensate, allowing you to maintain your gaze on the object that you are looking at. This reflex is called the vestibulo-ocular reflex. It is achieved by integrating information from both the visual and the vestibular system (which knows about body motion and position). You can experience this compensation quite simply. First, while you keep your head still and your gaze looking straight ahead, wave your finger in front of you from side to side. Notice how the image of the finger appears blurry. Now, keep your finger steady and look at it while you move your head from side to side. Notice how your eyes reflexively move to compensate the movement of your head and how the image of the finger stays sharp and stable. Vision also interacts with your proprioceptive system, to help you find where all your body parts are, and with your auditory system, to help you understand the sounds people make when they speak. You can learn more about this in the multimodal module.

Finally, vision is also often implicated in a blending-of-sensations phenomenon known as synesthesia. Synesthesia occurs when one sensory signal gives rise to two or more sensations. The most common type is grapheme-color synesthesia. About 1 in 200 individuals experience a sensation of color associated with specific letters, numbers, or words: the number 1 might always be seen as red, the number 2 as orange, etc. But the more fascinating forms of synesthesia blend sensations from entirely different sensory modalities, like taste and color or music and color: the taste of chicken might elicit a sensation of green, for example, and the timbre of violin a deep purple.

Sensation and PErception

All of this talk about vision may have you wondering what this has to do with psychology. Remember that sensation is input about the physical world obtained by our sensory receptors, and perception is the process by which the brain selects, organizes, and interprets these sensations. In other words, senses are the physiological basis of perception. Perception of the same senses may vary from one person to another because each person’s brain interprets stimuli differently based on that individual’s learning, memory, emotions, and expectations. It is for this reason that psychologists study sensation—in order to understand perception, which is clearly a component of behavior and mental processes (the definition of psychology).

Think It Over

Take a look at a few of your photos or personal works of art. Can you find examples of linear perspective as a potential depth cue?


afterimage: continuation of a visual sensation after removal of the stimulus
binocular cue: cue that relies on the use of both eyes
binocular disparity: slightly different view of the world that each eye receives
depth perception: ability to perceive depth
linear perspective: perceive depth in an image when two parallel lines seem to converge
monocular cue: cue that requires only one eye
opponent-process theory of color perception: color is coded in opponent pairs: black-white, yellow-blue, and red-green
synesthesia: the blending of two or more sensory experiences, or the automatic activation of a secondary (indirect) sensory experience due to certain aspects of the primary (direct) sensory stimulation.
trichromatic theory of color perception: color vision is mediated by the activity across the three groups of cones
vestibulo-ocular reflex: coordination of motion information with visual information that allows you to maintain your gaze on an object while you move.


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