Seeing Blue: From Pandora to Troy (Spoiler Alert!)

by Michael Mullaney on January 7, 2010

Mark Changizi is an interesting guy. When he’s not writing books or research papers, he undertakes endeavors like penning open letters to Hugh Hefner and sharing his experience of being interviewed by Jam-e-Jam, Iran’s primary (and state-run) newspaper. Then there was his musings on the evolutionary uselessness of belly buttons.

Recently, Changizi, an assistant professor of cognitive science here at Rensselaer, started blogging for the Telegraph, a daily UK newspaper with an historically strong science section. Kudos to them for seeking out and signing up Mark. The blog is here, and his latest piece is about Avatar, and whether the movie’s big blue antagonist actually sees himself as blue.

In Mark’s own words:

For those who haven’t seen the film, what you need to know is that Sully is a human who, from the safety of his brain-interface chamber back at the lab, can remotely control a “soul”-less alien body. And, at the end of the movie, and through the miracle of human suspension of disbelief, his human self gets literally uploaded into the alien’s body. Sully thereby becomes a bona fide eight foot tall, blue alien, and in the final frame of the movie we see his alien eyes open.

Question is: What does Sully see when he opens his eyes? And, more to the point: Does his new alien wife still appear blue to him?

These types of questions, which seem innocuous at first but actually reveal themselves as only the tip of a big iceberg of an answer, are the hallmark of Changizi’s research. Here’s how he goes on to answer his own question:

When we look out at our world through our eyes, we implicitly believe we are seeing it as it truly is. Our eyes and visual systems are to us objective scientific measuring devices. But evolution does not select for objective scientific equipment – evolution selects for visual systems that best serve the animal and its reproduction. Although often the best perception is one that veridically reflects the truth, sometimes the best solution is a “useful fiction,” a little-white-lie perception that serves us better than an accurate accounting of the actual.

He goes on to say that’s why, with language, we don’t notice our own accent. And aso why we don’t notice the smell of our own noses, or the temperature of our own skin. Same with our skin hue. He says we register the color of our skin as a baseline that is “uncolorly” and difficult to name. He wraps his post with this:

Now we can circle back to our earlier question. When Sully opens his eyes as an alien, does his alien wife still appear blue to him? And the answer is no. He’s one of them now, and will perceive his wife’s skin, and his own skin, as peculiarly uncoloury, no longer blue at all. He will also not notice the taste of his own alien saliva, something you can be sure he would have noticed were he to have tasted alien saliva as a human. And now we see why alien Sully would say to his wife, “But I thought you were blue!” Let’s just hope he wasn’t into her only because she was blue…

Click here to see all of Changizi’s Telegraph blog posts. Then check out all of his posts over at But first, definitely click over read my own story on his book that was released last year. Also, if you haven’t yet, you should definitely consider heading to you local theater to see Avatar. (Preferably in 3-D.)