Some Women See a Hundred Million Colors

An unknown percentage of women can see a hundred times as many colors as the rest of us.  While normal humans have three types of cones in their eyes for perceiving the three primary colors — red, green and blue — some women have an extra cone that gives them four primary colors.  Most of us can theoretically distinguish a million colors.  These women can see a hundred million colors.

Tetrachromatic women have a strong relationship to color-blind men. How does a deficiency — color-blindness — relate to this increased color perception? It has to do with the X chromosome and the fact that the genes for color perception reside on the two sides of it. With only a Y chromosome, and missing one of the arms of the X chromosome, men have less chance for redundancy. If they have a mutation in a color gene it usually means some loss of color perception. Women related to these men will likely have the same mutation, but they will have redundant genes on the second arm of their X chromosome. So the men will be down to two functioning cones, but the women will still have all three, plus the mutated one, which might still provide some color.

More recent research indicates that we might all be tetrachromatic after all. It turns out that parts of our optical system absorb the shortest wavelengths of the light that passes through them. It was assumed that our vision cut off at about 400 nanometers — blue — but it’s been discovered that the higher blues and the ultraviolets are being absorbed by our corneas and lenses. People who have their lenses removed in cataract surgery often report a new sensitivity to very short wavelengths.

Recently the BBC made a tetrachromatic woman famous. Concetta Antico is an artist and she can see colors that most of us can’t even imagine.

Some women are born with hyper-sensitive eyes that can see the world in ways most of us cannot even imagine. What’s it like to live with this gift?

Source: BBC – Future – ‘I see colours you cannot perceive or imagine’

This led to an Internet spasm, of course, and tetrachromacy became all the rage. There were even websites set up that purported to test you for the condition. Soon thousands were reporting on their social networks that they were tetrachromats. Fortunately, Snopes came to the rescue and showed quite simply why they were wrong. Computer monitors only use three colors so they can’t possibly test you for four. The Snopes article refers to Newcastle University’s tetrachromacy research project and credits them in debunking the Internet fad. Newcastle University has a FAQ on their research.
newcastle-tetrachromacy-project

When I look out the window and see all the shades of green and brown in my back lawn, it’s hard to imagine that I’m not seeing it all. Learning that some people can see a hundred times as many shades makes me think about how little of reality I’m really seeing.

rjb

About arjaybe

Jim has fought forest fires and controlled traffic in the air and on the sea. Now he writes stories.
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22 Responses to Some Women See a Hundred Million Colors

  1. Laird Smith says:

    This article leads me to wonder what the cones in my eyes are like, for shades of gray look green to me.
    I thoroughly enjoy these articles you are posting!

  2. Laird Smith says:

    That is right. I wonder how many cones pigeons have in their eyes?

    • arjaybe says:

      I believe it mentioned birds in one of the linked articles. And some birds can see ultraviolet. I bet a pigeon’s iridescence would look great in UV.

      • Laird Smith says:

        You might have, now that you mention it. I was going to reply to the iridescence and the UV but I find the comprehension a bit beyond me.

        • arjaybe says:

          Iridescence Ir`i*des”cence, n. [See Iridescent.]
          Exhibition of colors like those of the rainbow, especially a
          surface reflection which changes color with the angle at
          which the object is viewed; the quality or state of being
          iridescent; a prismatic play of color; as, the iridescence of
          mother-of-pearl. It is due to interference of light waves
          reflected from the front and back surfaces of a thin layer
          transpatrent or semitransparent film.

          Like the shiny colors in a pigeon’s feathers.

  3. emmylgant says:

    I can’t even wrap my head around 100 million anything, never mind colors…
    Some colors hurt my eyes. I mean I want to close them because they are too intense for comfort. For instance some so called ‘neon’ colors.
    Isn’t interesting that we seem to have different perceptions of what is essentially visual?
    Rose colored spectacles anyone? 😎

    • arjaybe says:

      I guess you don’t spend much time at the ski hill, if those colors hurt your eyes. What hurts my eyes is those new headlights. The dazzling bluish-white ones.

      Yes, it is interesting that our internal visual reality is so different from what is (presumably) really out there. It seems to make reality contingent, doesn’t it?

    • Laird Smith says:

      I’m with you on the bluish white headlights, they make night driving a pain! Fortunately I’ve only encountered them on their low beam. There are some folks who insist on driving on high beam all the time, the bluish white will make it very difficult to see even the edge of the road!

  4. Trish says:

    I was a bit surprised to read this. The colours are all there, they just ARE. I thought that was just the way it was. My friends tell me they can’t see them the same, I never understood it. I also draw and paint.

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