Alex stood in front of a mirror observing himself. "What color?" he inquired of no one in particular. He stared at his reflection a little longer before repeating the question: "What color?"
Alex was a gray parrot purchased from a pet shop by psychologist Irene Pepperberg in 1977. To date, Alex is perhaps the only animal to ask a seemingly existential question. (The feathery genius, whose name is short for "avian learning experiment," learned that the answer was "gray" after being told six times.)
Typically, of course, colorcentric ponderings are unique to humans, and the queries are endless: Is the blue you see the same blue that I see? And how do you describe blue to someone who's never observed it? For most, these debates arise only in Philosophy 101. For color-blind people, though, this line of questioning is lifelong and impacts everything, whether it’s navigation, doing home repairs, makeup application, or choosing an outfit.
Color blindness, a trait most commonly caused by a mutation on the X chromosome — meaning you are much more likely to have it if you were assigned male at birth (a one in 12 shot, versus one in 200 for those assigned female at birth), particularly if you’re of Northern European ancestry — is shrouded in myths and misconceptions. The big one: All color deficiencies are roughly the same or manifest as a gray-scale view of the world. Actually, those with color blindness still usually see plenty of color, they just experience it differently.
Greens may appear muted. "Reds may look greenish or green may look brownish," says Muriel Schornack, an optometrist with the Mayo Clinic. Other colors — blue and green, yellow and red, purple and red — may be tricky to distinguish, or completely unidentifiable. A complete or near-complete absence of color, called achromatopsia, is rare, affecting just one in 30,000 people; but on the tiny Micronesian island of Pingelap, this rate skyrockets to as much as 10 percent of the population. Remember how we said it was genetic?
We took an image of
Marilyn Monroe (upper left) and used a digital simulator to show how different types of color blindness might impact the way you see it — though "it’s impossible…to fully appreciate what color deficiency might look like in any specific individual," says the Mayo Clinic’s Schornack.
But biology is not the only contributor. A pair of identical twins would almost certainly possess the same form of color blindness, but a life's worth of experiences could mean they see color differently every day. "Genetics [only] allow us to predict what somebody is able to see under controlled circumstances, like in a laboratory," says Robert B. Hufnagel, an ophthalmic genetics clinician-scientist at the National Eye Institute.
If you do see color uniquely, a lot of people assume you'd leap at the chance to perceive color the same way as the rest of the world. But for every viral video of someone trying EnChroma glasses, which filter light in such a way as to alter perception for people with certain deficiencies, there are countless color-blind folks who are perfectly happy with their vision just the way it is.
"I've literally never seen color before, so when I get comments on my [TikTok] videos that say, 'It must be so depressing…' I always have to laugh a bit," says Natasha Caudill, a content creator with achromatopsia. "It’s hard to miss something you’ve never experienced before, so the way I see isn't depressing at all. It's just my life."
Also consider the case of Claude Monet. (Yes, that Monet.) According to Bevil R. Conway, a researcher at the National Eye Institute, as we age, our vision tends to get yellower without us ever noticing. "It's like when you go skiing and you wear those yellow-tinted glasses. You put them on at the beginning, [and] by the end of the day you don’t even know you're wearing them," he says. But when Monet's vision yellowed, so much so that he no longer painted with blues and his eyes became afflicted by cataracts, he underwent corrective surgery. According to letters written to his ophthalmologist, though, the experience had him wishing he'd left well enough alone: He then saw too much blue and began wearing yellow-green tinted glasses to restore his ability to perceive those shades.
Maybe the grass isn't always greener (or reddish-greener) after all.