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Seeing Red, or, The Superpower You May Not Even Know You Have

March 7, 2014

 

I don’t need to tell you that sight is important for most people. It is estimated that the brain devotes 50% of its activity to processing our visual sensory experience.

 

As a child, it’s likely you contemplated an idea that went something like this: “I wonder if the color red I’m seeing is the exact same color red my friend sees?” That question, framed in scientific terms, asks, “Is there strict commonality in the way any two brains process the same visual representation?”

 

Interestingly, it’s only very recently that neuroscientists have begun to shed some light on this issue. In fact, light plays a key part in the story. But before we get to the answer, it’s important to understand that some people, and by that I mean some women, have been shown to have visual super powers.

 

The retinas in our eyes process light through conical structures made up of neurons. Most of us have three types of cones. Sounds pretty basic, yet various permutations of those three cone types let us perceive about a million different color shades.  If you have all three types of cones, you’re considered to be a trichromat. If you’re born with only two kinds of cones, you’re dichromatic—also known as colorblind.

 

However, it appears that a relatively small percentage of women have a fourth color cone. If you won the four-cone lottery, you’re called a tetrachromat. Unfortunately, most of those tetrachomats don’t use their fourth cone, so they wind up seeing the same colors as the rest of us.

 

After a twenty year quest, armed with very sophisticated equipment for visual color diagnostics, neuroscientist Gabriela Jordan and her team had a breakthrough in 2010. They discovered a woman living in England who was a functional tetrachomatic.

 

Jordan explained it to Discover Magazine like this, “We now know tetrachromacy exists. But we don't know what allows someone to become functionally tetrachromatic, when most four-coned women aren't.'” 

 

How much difference can one extra cone make? Tetrachromats can see a hundred million more color shades than the rest of us.

 

And yet if you’re a functioning tetrachromat, it’s likely you’re unaware of it because you have no way of understanding on how much deeper your color shading is by comparison.

 

So if by chance you are both a woman and a functional tetrachromat, you were born with a real super power. You may not exactly be Superman or Superwoman, but compared to other humans, you’ve got a secret ability all the same.

 

One that presents a world so extraordinary that it boggles most minds. One that, from your vantage point, is simply, you know, Tuesday.

 

In the end, we both may see the exact same red; it’s just that if you’re a tetrachromat, you see a hundred million more shades of it than I do. 

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