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For the psychological and neurological model, see opponent-process theory.

Opponent colors based on experiment. Deuteranopes will see little difference between the top and bottom colors in the central column.

The opponent-process theory of colour vision or Tetrachromatic theory is a color theory that states that the human visual system interprets information about color by processing signals from cones and rods in an antagonistic manner. The three types of cones have some overlap in the wavelengths of light to which they respond, so it is more efficient for the visual system to record differences between the responses of cones, rather than each type of cone's individual response. The opponent color theory suggests that there are three opponent channels: red versus green, blue versus yellow, and black versus white (the latter type is achromatic and detects light-dark variation, or luminance).[1] Responses to one color of an opponent channel are antagonistic to those to the other color.

While the trichromatic theory defines the way the retina of the eye allows the visual system to detect color with three types of cones, the opponent process theory accounts for mechanisms that receive and process information from cones. Though the trichromatic and opponent processes theories were initially thought to be at odds, it later came to be understood that the mechanisms responsible for the opponent process receive signals from the three types of cones and process them at a more complex level[2].

Besides the cones, which detect light entering the eye, the biological basis of the opponent theory involves two other types of cells: bipolar cells, and ganglion cells. Information from the cones is passed to the bipolar cells in the retina, which may be the cells in the opponent process that transform the information from cones. The information is then passed to ganglion cells, of which there are two major classes: magnocellular, or large-cell layers, and parvocellular, or small-cell layers. Parvocellular cells, or P cells, handle the majority of information about color, and fall into two groups: one that processes information about differences between firing of L and M cones, and one that processes differences between S cones and a combined signal from both L and M cones. The first subtype of cells are responsible for processing red-green differences,and the second process blue-yellow differences. P cells also transmit information about intensity of light (how much of it there is) due to their receptive fields.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first studied the physiological effect of opposed colors in his Theory of Colours in 1810.[3] Goethe arranged his color wheel symmetrically, "for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange, blue; red, green; and vice versa: thus... all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other."[4]

Ewald Hering proposed opponent color theory in 1892.[5] He thought that the colors red, yellow, green, and blue are special in that any other color can be described as a mix of them, and that they exist in opposite pairs. That is, either red or green is perceived and never greenish-red; although yellow is a mixture of red and green in the RGB color theory, the eye does not perceive it as such.

In 1957, Hurvich and Jameson provided quantitative data for Hering's color opponency theory. Their method was called "hue cancellation". Hue cancellation experiments start with a color (e.g. yellow) and attempt to determine how much of the opponent color (e.g. blue) of one of the starting color's components must be added to eliminate any hint of that component from the starting color (Wolfe, Kluender, & Levi, 2009). [6]

Griggs expanded the concept to reflect a wide range of opponent processes for biological systems in this book Biological Relativity (c) 1967.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In 1970, Solomon expanded Hurvich's general neurological opponent process model to explain emotion, drug addiction, and work motivation.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The opponent color theory can be applied to computer vision and implemented as the "Gaussian color model."[7]

Subjective color and new colors[]

Main article: Impossible colors

Reddish green and yellowish blue[]

Under normal circumstances, there is no hue one could describe as a mixture of opponent hues; that is, as a hue looking "redgreen" or "yellowblue". However, in 1983 Crane and Piantanida[8] carried out an experiment proving that, under special viewing conditions involving the use of an eye tracker, it is apparently possible to override the opponency mechanisms and, for a moment, get some people to perceive novel colors:

"[s]ome observers indicated that although they were aware that what they were viewing was a color (that is, the field was not achromatic), they were unable to name or describe the color. One of these observers was an artist with a large color vocabulary. Other observers of the novel hues described the first stimulus as a reddish-green."[9]

Other uses[]

Opponent processes have also been used to explain pain, touch, facial expression of emotion[10], smell, taste, and balance.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

See also[]


  1. Michael Foster (1891). A Text-book of physiology, Lea Bros. & Co.
  2. Kandel ER, Schwartz JH and Jessell TM, 2000. Principles of Neural Science, 4th ed., McGraw-Hill, New York. pp. 577–80.
  3. Goethe's Color Theory. Vision science and the emergence of modern art.
  4. Goethe, Johann (1810). Theory of Colours, paragraph #50.
  5. Hering E, 1964. Outlines of a Theory of the Light Sense. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  6. Hurvich, Leo M., Jameson, Dorothea (November 1957). An opponent-process theory of color vision. Psychological Review 64 (6, Part I): 384–404.
  7. Geusebroek, J.-M.; van den Boomgaard, R.; Smeulders, A.W.M.; Geerts, H. (December 2001). Color invariance. Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, IEEE Transactions on 23 (12): 1338–1350.
  8. *Crane HD and Piantanida TP, 1983. On Seeing Reddish Green and Yellowish Blue. Science, 221:1078–80.
  9. Suarez J. Reddish Green: A Challenge for Modal Claims About Phenomenal Structure. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
  10. Susskind JM, Lee DH, Cusi A, Feiman R, Grabski W, Anderson AK, (2008). Expressing fear enhances sensory acquisition. Nature Neuroscience 11 (7):843-850. doi:10.1038/nn.2138Link to Abstract

Further reading[]

  • Baccus SA, 2007. Timing and computation in inner retinal circuitry. Annu Rev Physiol, 69:271–90.
  • Masland RH, 2001. Neuronal diversity in the retina. Curr Opin Neurobiol, 11(4):431–6.
  • Masland RH, 2001. The fundamental plan of the retina. Nat Neurosci. 4(9):877–86.
  • Sowden PT and Schyns PG, 2006. Channel surfing in the visual brain. Trends Cogn Sci. 10(12):538–45.
  • Wässle H, 2004. Parallel processing in the mammalian retina. Nat Rev Neurosci, 5(10):747–57.

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