Color Blindness
December 7, 2004 11:58 PM   Subscribe

Paging all color blind users! I'm curious about the fact that some dichromats and anomolous trichromats can live through a large portion of their adult lives without realizing that they're color blind. When did you first recognize that you were color blind? Does the world look different to you now than it did then? Before you were diagnosed, did you use different words ('red' and 'green') to refer to perceptually similar colors? In general, I'm hoping to get the lowdown on the subjective experience of being color blind.
posted by painquale to Society & Culture (27 answers total)
I was diagnosed before starting kindergarten. They showed me a card filled with red and green dots, and insisted I should see the number 23. Weirdos.

The rest of your questions don't apply to anyone diagnosed that early. (Does the world look different than when I was three? Duh.) I will confess there was an unexpected benefit in middle school: I was excused from all social studies homework involving color-coded maps. I milked that.
posted by cribcage at 12:05 AM on December 8, 2004

Response by poster: I've been doing some research in color perception for a little while, and have been especially influenced by the work of Kimberly Jameson. For anyone interested, her paper Culture and Cognition [pdf] is especially good. Jameson cites studies claiming that color blind people use dissimilar names to refer to perceptually similar colors, but I find this bewildering. I'm tempted to think that the dichromat's visual experience of 'red' is different from the visual experience of 'green' in a non-trivial way -- possibly very similar to the trichromat's experience.

On preview: thanks for the reply, cribcage!
posted by painquale at 12:10 AM on December 8, 2004

Heh, I just came across this website a few minutes back.
posted by Gyan at 12:28 AM on December 8, 2004

Here's a page fpr web developers that has all kinds of filters to simulate "what it's like" to be color blind. No help on the language, but they do have some cool examples.

Do you do anything with tetrachromats?

Great name. Too bad I'm a qualia-freak. They do too exist.
posted by ontic at 12:30 AM on December 8, 2004

When did you first recognize that you were color blind?

During a medical exam for MEPS when I was joining the Army National Guard.

Does the world look different to you now than it did then?

Not really. I don't know what the technical name of it is, but I only confuse some browns and greens. So it seems like a minor type of color blindness. I occasionally will argue with someone over the color of a sweater or something... Doesn't really seem to be that big of a deal. For the Army, all they cared about was the ability to tell between Red, Green, and Yellow
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 1:09 AM on December 8, 2004

When did you first recognize that you were color blind?

when I had my eyes checked because I thought I might need glasses. This was before I had my driver's license (since I already knew about it when they showed me the spotted cards for that) so I must have been 15 or 16.

Does the world look different to you now than it did then?
not at all.

Before you were diagnosed, did you use different words ('red' and 'green') to refer to perceptually similar colors?

nope. like S@L, I have a minor kind of color blindness. I can tell fully saturated primaries and their complements apart fine, but adjacent shades or desaturated colors I have some issues with.
posted by juv3nal at 1:19 AM on December 8, 2004

If you're trying to figure out what someone with colour blindness experiences, you're probably on a hiding to nothing.

My brother is colour-blind; I fed a red-heavy picture (Remembrance Day poppies) through vischeck (linked above), and he couldn't see a difference between the before (bright red) and after (muted brown) pictures.

But that's not to say that the after picture is "what he sees" - maybe his brain has the gain on the red signal set far higher than mine does, so he's experiencing all browns as bright reds. Indeed, he could be experiencing both images as (the colour I consider to be) purple for all I know.

I once came across a guy who was completely colour-blind (saw the world in black and white). He could still differentiate colours, probably by intensity-of-grey and experience. He could also tell you what colours people were wearing in old black and white films. Kinda neat.
posted by Leon at 1:56 AM on December 8, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses thus far, guys! I have a couple of follow-up questions:

1) Does it seem to you that you confuse colors but see the same colors that trichromats do, or does it seem that you're legitimately missing some portion of their color space? If the latter, can you begin to imagine what the missing colors would look like?

2) Does it ever seem to you that the context you're in and your knowledge of the world influence the colors you see? For instance, when walking around the park, do you ever see grass as brown and tree trunks as green, or is that just kinda ruled out? There are some colorblind people who, when informed that a white-looking bowl is actually red, will slowly watch that bowl turn pink in their visual field. Does contextual information ever alter your perception in a similar way?

ontic: Tetrachromacy interests the heck out of me, but I only have a passing knowledge of it. There's not yet a whole lot of literature on it as far as I can tell. And qualia don't exist!

Leon: I'm not as pessimistic as you about the possibility of getting to the bottom of subjective experience. Your friend who can decode clothing color from old movies sounds pretty fantastic.
posted by painquale at 2:27 AM on December 8, 2004

I'm red-green colorblind, and my take on the issue is that people like me simply have trouble distinguishing colors that are easily distinguished by non-colorblind people. There aren't any imaginary missing colors for me. My wife says all red wines are simply "tannic," and I say all earthtone reds, green and browns are all simply "brownish." She can't imagine a really great red wine, cause she's never had one that she considered remotely great, while I never saw an earthtone that I considered vivid.
posted by shoos at 3:42 AM on December 8, 2004

I found out at a student flight physical. I can only get a few (like, two) of the Ishihara test (the dots). I've always felt like I live in a world rich in color. It shows up in dim light or artificial light, and gets me on purple or brown, gray or blue.
posted by atchafalaya at 3:54 AM on December 8, 2004

Similar story to shoos... after a few cases of "hand me the tan X" ("no, that's GREEN!") or "look at the blue Y" ("no, that's PURPLE!") as a kid, we had the doctors do the dots-tests at my next yearly physical and sure enough, red-green colorblindness.
posted by letourneau at 4:12 AM on December 8, 2004

Found out in first grade or so. Some standard exam held by school at a young age, anyways. Red/green colorblind, but it's a pretty mild version. I can often see suggestions of the digits in question, but will see 58 instead of 26, for example. On the other hand, when I take tests that measure your ability to discern differences between color gradient bars, I actually perform above average, and I have (I think) a pretty excellent eye for color insofar as style goes. The only part of my life where I actually really notice it is, in fact, my addiction to multiplayer FPS games. There are times when I run right by someone in plain sight and then, of course, fall over dead when they shoot me. Or more usually, bite me, since the game I play is aliens vs. space marines.


So far as I've noticed, I rarely use different words for colors than everyone else. It happens on occasion, but even then, I'm distinguishing the color. It's just that I put it in a different part of the spectrum from most people.
posted by kavasa at 4:12 AM on December 8, 2004

Like other posters, my color blindness consists of inability to differentiate similar shades of different colors: navy blue and black, dark red and brown, some yellows and greens. When I was 10, I colored a map purple and brown instead of blue and green. I know AskMe is green, but it could be a shade of earthy brown right?

The world did "look" slightly different once I knew I was color blind because it made me focus on subjective versus objective observation. To me, color is a subjective reality despite the physics. That is to say the wavelength of light is objective, but the perception of colors changes slightly amongst all individuals. So now I ask myself "I wonder what color "normal" people think that is? Do they ALL agree?".

Once I know what color something should be, I set my field of reference for that object. So if you show me three objects with different shades of dark red one at a time, I'll call the first one brown, but once you tell me it is red, I can probably tell the rest are a shade of red even though they look brown to me. Context also helps to classify colors.

I think most moderate colorblindness is as much about differences in mental methods for differentiation and classification of colors as it is about seeing the full spectrum. Maybe it is because I'm colorblind and not the cause of it, but color isn't as important to me as it seems to be for most people. My brain doesn't expend a great deal of effort on it without willful deliberation.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 5:47 AM on December 8, 2004

I found out in grade school when I failed the "colored dots" test. My classmates, who taught me much about cruelty, had me convinced I was going to be sent to a special school for colorblind kids. I actually cheated on the retest by reading the answers upside down.

I have what's called deuteranopia, but no matter what it's called I have trouble with green (which I see mostly as gray) and brown, not so much with red. For instance, traffic lights look Red, Yellow and White to me, but since I can see the three colors as different, there's no problem. I tend to wear mostly solid colors, since multicolors don't register correctly with me (as compared to what others see). Often, if someone tells me what color something is, I can "see" it, though it still depends on the shade. Interestingly, my father has normal color vision but one of his brothers could not see any color at all. He required assistance in laying out his clothes (he worked on Wall Street) to make sure his socks, tie and suit all went together.

The bottom line is that I see the world the way I see it. I would never have noticed were it not for that test in school, although I'm sure it would have come up eventually (probably clothes-related).
posted by tommasz at 6:52 AM on December 8, 2004

I've never been formally diagnosised but like Steve_at_linwood, I have issues with brown and green. It really came to head while waiting at the airport baggage pickup and telling the people waiting for me that my bag was green. They were all sunned when I went over and picked up my bag, which I now know is actually brown.
posted by mmascolino at 7:01 AM on December 8, 2004

Like S@L and letourneau I see some shades of brown as green. At 31 I had those coloured dots number tests when I started with a new optometrist and failed to see several of the numbers, which my wife found hilarious for some reason. In hindsight it was pretty obvious, an ex used to ask me what she should wear and I'd say "your green dress" and she'd say "I don't have a green dress do you mean the brown one with buttons?" Same round and round with my wife on occasion.

One other thing, about half the traffic lights I see are Red-Yellow-Blue. The blue colour is the same shade as a perfectly clear north blue sky but much more vivid.
posted by Mitheral at 7:42 AM on December 8, 2004

So is it true that only males are colorblind?
posted by Gooney at 8:00 AM on December 8, 2004

Is this really an appropriate question for the blue? Shouldn't this be in the red or the grey?
posted by joelf at 8:45 AM on December 8, 2004

Gooney: Not at all. Colorblind females exist, but they are much rarer than colorblind males. That said, I've known a couple.

I got diagnosed as being colorblind when I was 12 or 13, but my parents suspected I was for many years before. I did things like not realize that all the colors on a plaid shirt were there and stuff, but I was able to get by somehow apparently. Rainbows aren't very impressive to me -- usually I see three colors in them. A little bit of blue, a big band of yellow, and a bit of red. One time, I saw five, but it was the most brilliant rainbow I had ever seen.

As far as I can tell, I have more problems with greens (AskMe has a definite greyness to it, but I know it's green and all), but I have problems with reds too. I can see green and red and all, but shades give me problems. The best example I can think of from my experience to try and explain what I see to people are that green traffic lights look almost white to me. I always wondered why people called them green traffic lights when they were barely green. When I was twenty, I finally found out that they're actually a very obvious, brilliant green.

Clothes-wise, I've ducked around that issue by either wearing a lot of plaid or strangely colored shirts that you wouldn't expect to match with anything else, or a lot of blacks, greys, and whites. This is not foolproof, however: one time, I was congratulated on being comfortable with my sexuality while wearing a pink dress shirt (looked white to me -- that was the first I'd heard about it), and I had these great grey shirts I wore for a couple of years. They were nice button up short sleeve shirts I'd gotten from some guy who used to be in the Navy or Marines, and I wore them all the time, be it with dress clothes or more casually.

Finally someone told me they were lime green. Apparently people thought I was just being "wacky".

I also ran a couple of stop signs when I was first learning to drive before I learned to look for the shape rather than the color. /me whistles idly... Purples can be problematic too.

One thing I would like to say: asking people what it's like to be colorblind is a fair question, I suppose, but realize that it's a hard thing to explain, seeing as the vast majority of colorblind individuals (there is a small number of non red-green folks who became colorblind because of an illness) have never not been colorblind. We're just as in the dark as you are. Also, I can not state this forcefully enough: do not say "Uh, so what color shirt am I wearing?", get an answer like "blue" (since the shirt is), and say "Haw haw, no, it's pink!! Ha ha!" I really, really hate it when some dumbass does that.
posted by Captain_Tenille at 9:05 AM on December 8, 2004

joelf wins.
posted by adampsyche at 9:05 AM on December 8, 2004

Gooney: my understanding is that chromosones are named X and Y because they are roughly that shape. XX women have eight "arms" to their chromosones, while XY men are missing the last arm.

This means that there are a whole bunch of genes that women get two copies of, but men only get one. Because they're missing the redundancy, men only have to inherit one bad gene to get the disease, while women have to inherit from both parents - they get a backup copy.

This explanation holds for plenty of other genetic oddities that tend to express in males rather than females, too. So, to anwser your question, red/green deficiency is a lot less common in women, but is possible.

(Disclamer: IANAGeneticist - I'm sure there'll be one along in a minute to correct me).
posted by Leon at 9:23 AM on December 8, 2004

Leon: I've never heard that. X and Y chromosomes, if they're together, both look vaguely like xs, like the other chromosomes. Y chromosomes just happen to be unusually small. Besides, some animals (birds come to mind, at least) are ZW (where ZZ == male and ZW == female), and surely no one would think that those chromosomes would resemble Zs and Ws.

XY and ZW are just conventions for naming different types of sex chromosomes is all.

The rest of your comment is correct, though.
posted by Captain_Tenille at 9:36 AM on December 8, 2004

I am severely red/green, mildly blue/yellow colorblind. I have failed almost every single one of those dot tests I have ever seen. Don't tell my prospective employers, as I am in video and film post-production. I was diagnosed early on, first grade or so. Most of the time if I stare at something for long enough I can figure out what color it is. Except in this bar the other night when I couldn't tell which button on the shuffleboard table incremented which team's score. Not enough light/buttons were too small.

I generally know what color things are, but not always on account of the color cues (like the stop sign or that tree trunk), and the color cues are not what I use for many things, so I am not always aware of "obvious" color things. For example, I thought joelf was just being a dick until I reread the post a third time.

My best "don't mock me, it's a disability" moment came in college when I worked at the theater as a technician. They learned quickly not to ask me to fetch lighting gels out of the cabinets without giving me a number to reference. One day they asked me to hang black fabric to mask some wooden stuff that was visible from the audience. I dug into the bin full of duvateen and spent about twenty minutes really hanging that stuff up and concealing the 2x4's so it wouldn't be a distraction to the audience. My boss walked over to check my work, started laughing. Five minutes later he told me the fabric I had used was bright red.
posted by mzurer at 10:23 AM on December 8, 2004

Oops, and yes - once I am told what color something is, it generally snaps into the right category. Not those pesky buttons, though.
posted by mzurer at 10:27 AM on December 8, 2004


I just found an article that says 5-8% of the male population is colorblind and 0.5% of the female population...
posted by Gooney at 10:50 AM on December 8, 2004

There are some reds, greens and browns that meld together for me, but if I strain I can figure it out. My theory is, I still have the qualia for red and green (I think this is the case with most colorblind people), but I have a harder time assigning them due to poor physical equipment.
posted by abcde at 12:56 PM on December 8, 2004

Response by poster: Great discussion, guys! Thanks so much for the comments!

For the record, I am sympathetic to the position that abcde gives above (though I'd remove the reference to qualia!). Color ascription can often go awry because the retinal input machinery is broken... however, the brain is working just fine, so inference from context and luminance information can lead to the correct subjective color experience.

Of course, there's a difference between seeing an object as red and knowing an object is red but seeing it as brown (see McGuillicuddy's comment "if you show me three objects with different shades of dark red one at a time, I'll call the first one brown, but once you tell me it is red, I can probably tell the rest are a shade of red even though they look brown to me"). From what I can tell, opinion is kind of split on the extent to which contextual information can help.
posted by painquale at 3:48 PM on December 8, 2004

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