Friday, August 5, 2022

Color Blindness, or Memory Blindness? The Curious History of Crayola and the Color Chartreuse

Hi there, blog!  It's been a minute (or, more accurately, about four months) since I've written anything personal, as I've been busy with private commissions, but today I have a topic I've touched on before: memory.

Specifically, the malleable nature of it, and the Mandela Effect.

Memory is surprisingly plastic and not nearly as reliable as you might think.  Every time you remember something, you're actually remembering the last time you remembered it; in other words, remembering something is making a Xerox of a Xerox.  For this reason, it's easy to implant memories using the power of suggestion.  In one study, college students were convinced they'd been arrested... in as little as three hours.  

This brings me to the Mandela effect.  The Mandela effect occurs when a group of people remember something differently than what actually happened.  A collective false memory.  The term was coined in 2010 by Fiona Broome, who claimed she remembered Nelson Mandela dying in prison, with lots of news coverage and memorial events.  But Mandela didn't die in prison; he was in prison for 27 years, released in 1990, and went on to achieve presidency over South Africa in 1994.

Broome was not the only one to have "remembered" Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s.   According to Broome, thousands of other shared her memory-that-was-not-a-memory.

Broome wrote an entire book about the Mandela effect and I'm sorry to say that her conclusion about her false memories was that it was evidence of "alternate realities" or of "reality shifting," a dimensional break.

The reality is, in my opinion, more disturbing; our brains have the ability to suggest an idea, and then, each remembrance causes the idea to be embellished, until it's no longer a hypothetical but an actual "memory," one detailed enough to be indistinguishable from other memories.



What happened with Mandela?  Simple: after being in prison for 27 years without updates, people made the (reasonable) conclusion he had died.  And then they brains filled in the gaps: if he'd died, surely there'd been a funeral?  Surely it had been televised?  Surely they'd heard about it?

It's no coincidence that many people's false memories, or Mandela effect experiences, occur in childhood, when the brain is more plastic.  I wrote an article previously about childhood memory and perception.  (Incidentally, the "Lost Episode" of Sesame Street has since been released, and you can view it here.)  And it's not surprising that people can "share" a false memory, since people agreeing on something they're not actually sure of makes it so that both are more likely to consider it correct.  (This is why investigators don't ask "leading" questions; people are inclined to agree when not sure, and search for context clues to "figure out" the truth.)

When it comes to the Mandela effect, usually the memories aren't entirely false; they have a basis in some reality and can be traced or attributed to a false news article, misprint, or similar thing that "actually" happened (even if it didn't).

An example is people "remembering" that the Berenstain Bears were the Berenstein Bears. This did actually happen; the name was very frequently misspelled in TV Guides and on unlicensed toys, so they likely did see it spelled as "-stein."


I have experienced the Mandela effect only once, but it did lead me to a feeling of recollection vertigo.

My Mandela effect: for a long time, I and many others thought that the color "chartreuse" was red.

It's actually green.


I'm not the only one who thought of chartreuse as red, but if you read this excellent article (also linked above) from The Paris Review about the color, you'll see no such confusion existed in the heyday of the color.  Named in the 1880s, the height of its popularity was in the 1920s.  Most people who think of chartreuse as "red" were born between 1970 and 1990.   What gives?

Well, I did my research and discovered that the confusion seems to come from Crayola, which released a red-orange crayon in 1972 named "chartreuse." In 1990, the crayon was renamed to "Atomic Tangerine" but the confusion remains for Gen Xers and older Millennials, who associate "chartreuse" with red hues.

Curiously, although the crayon was more orange than red, and had a fluorescent / neon hue to it, most people who remember chartreuse as red describe it as a dark brick, burgundy, or maroon.  But there's a simple explanation for this.  The color derives its name from an alcoholic drink and that people get their wires crossed and think of it as being some kind of French wine.  A lot of people claim it "sounds" red.  I believe that's another case of crossed wires: there are other red colors, like cherry and cerise, with similar names.


Let 's jump into a Crayola timeline for a better look at chartreuse.

Crayola began in 1903 with eight colors in each box.  Coincidentally, in the same year, the French government took over the Chartreuse distillery.  Jury's out on just how connected these two things are, but my intuition tells me "completely."

Anyway, in 1949, nearly fifty years later, Crayola released 40 more colors, which directly led to the collapse of the Berlin War forty years later.

Just kidding, although it's worth pointing out that one of the colors released in 1949 was "Prussian blue," and this was changed to "midnight blue" in the '50s.  (The company figured no one would remember the color as being the color of a Prussian uniform post-WWII era.)

So bear this in mind: Crayola can and does change color names.

In 1972, with 64 colors on the roster, Crayola introduced eight more.  The 1972 "fluorescent" line contained an ultra orange, ultra yellow, ultra green, ultra pink, ultra blue, ultra red, combo-breaking "hot magenta"... and chartreuse.

In 1990, ultra orange became outrageous orange, ultra yellow became laser lemon, ultra green became screamin' green, ultra pink became shocking pink, ultra red became wild watermelon, and chartreuse became atomic tangerine.  

However, Crayola still retains a "chartreuse" crayon (#FFFF66).  In a search for the legendary red chartreuse, I came across a list on Wikipedia, which claims that "chartreuse"was actually changed to laser lemon and "ultra yellow" was changed to "atomic tangerine." It makes little sense to me that a color called "yellow" would be changed to "tangerine."  And all other sources seem to think that chartreuse and atomic tangerine are the same. 

Here's a picture of "atomic tangerine" next to laser lemon, and as you can see, they are completely separate colors, and laser lemon is yellow, not red-orange:


I am forced to conclude that Big Crayola is manipulating the Wikipedia page to cover their tracks.

It's worth noting that Crayola's most senior crayon maker, Emerson Moser, who worked in a crayon plant pouring the waxes into molds and putting said molds through the papering machines, who made over a billion crayons in his 37-year-long career, was color-blind

His year of retirement? 1990.  The same year that "chartreuse," a pale green that would be indistinguishable from orange-red with someone with colorblindness, had its name "fixed."  (Nowadays, chartreuse is called "green yellow.")   

It's possible the "chartreuse" mistake/inconsistency can be directly attributed to him, but Crayola has never offered an explanation.

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