The German is one of the most fascinating languages of the European continent, especially if we exclude all those from non – Indo – European branches. Its grammar allows the formation of long and variegated words, all composed by a primary and another determinant. Thus, the German language has bequeathed to the world such proverbial concepts as zeitgeist or blitzkrieg , able to summarize in a breath much more complex ideas.
Malleable language where they exist, lends itself to a multitude of creations and innovations, being a playground for thinkers and scientists of all kinds. Thus, if Einstein devised gedankenexperiment, the nineteenth-century psychologist Gustav Theodor Fechner saw fit to baptize what our eyes observed when they remained closed, a color now cataloged in HTML as #16161d: Eigengrau.
Its formulation, as explained here, is simple: Eigengrau literally means “its own gray” or “intrinsic gray”, the complete darkness to which our eye eye peeks when we drop our eyelids. It is a somewhat precise definition. What we observe when we close our eyes is not black, a color much more elusive than it appears in nature, but a gray full of bright specks or sparkles.
Fechner, one of the pioneers in his field and the father of experimental psychology, found in his mother tongue ( the German of Saxony, at that time, 1801, still part of the Holy Germanic Empire), enough syntactic flexibility to illuminate the Eigengrau. “Eigen” is translated as “own light”, while “grau” means simply and “gray”.
The suggestion has a high poetic character, very given to the German. “Eigen” denotes the intrinsic value, by itself, of the gray that we contemplate when closing our eyes. It is the color to which our brain automatically resorts when it has nothing to observe, a chromatic range autogenerated by our eye nerves. It is the color of nothingness, and therefore of everything that exists when life is extinguished.
“Eigen” has many other uses within German. “Eigenwärme” refers to our body heat, generated by our own body; “Eigentor” speaks of our vital goals, fixed by ourselves; and “Eigenliebe” translates as “self-love”. The Eigengrauthus becomes a philosophical color, a perpetual accompaniment that appears there when we wish to close our eyes to the world. Literally.
Do we really see it?
It is a good question. Actually we observe something very similar and of pairs tonalities, but not a monotonous and opaque color like the one that reproduce the HTML codes. It suffices to close the eyes to verify it: there where before there were forms, figures and colors an indefinite conglomerate appears flashes, stars and geometric shapes that reproduce of random form on a dark background.
The Eigengrau, but also the phosphenes.
What happens when we lower our eyelids has been the subject of exciting scientific research. The word “phosphenes” is itself another loan from a foreign language, in this case ancient Greek, where “phos” meant “light” and “phainein”, “to show”, and refers to the small points of light that They contemplate our eyeballs when the real light no longer reaches our eyes.
Why do they happen? Because of our brain. Our visible spectrum is composed of photons of light that, once captured by the eyes, a system of interconnected lenses and nerves, reach the neurons of our brain. Their task is crucial, since they transform light into shapes and colors, later interpreted by our visual cortex and transformed into what we commonly call “sight”.
This last step is key: the neurons use electrical signals to compose our visual field, and their activity never ceases. Not even when we close our eyes. The flashes and patterns (sometimes geometric) that we perceive when we close our eyes come from the incessant activity of our visual cortex, whose activity is permanent and spontaneous. If we apply force to our drooping eyelids, electrical signals simply multiply.
Hence, we never observe a pure black , the color that we should a priori see when the absence of light is total. Reaching such disturbing tonality has been left to the hands of experimental artists and scientists of all conditions. Some years ago we talked about the blackest color ever generated by the human being, a dye capable of swallowing 99.96% of the ambient light. It is very, very far from the Eigengrau , a mere dark gray.
Its origin, of course, is more natural. More consubstantial to our existence, full of erratic patterns and imperfections, always mottled, never pure. Probably only German, the language that so often served as a vehicle for existentialism and nihilism, could baptize a color that is not a color, but an inescapable experience.