Color Blindness

The visual condition that changes what colors you see.

To start, being color blind almost never means someone is blind to color, as if they’re living in a black & white movie. “Color blind” usually just means someone doesn’t see the full spectrum of colors like the rest of us. To understand color blindness we have to understand two concepts: light and our eyes.

Let there be light

The colors that we see are photons moving at different wavelengths/frequencies. They’re part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The full electromagnetic spectrum ranges from Gamma rays (the shortest, highest frequency waves – quite dangerous) to radio waves (the longest, lowest frequency waves – not so dangerous). What we call visible light is radiation in a particular range of wavelengths. Within this bandwidth the colors of violet and blue have the shortest wavelengths while oranges and reds have the longest. Through evolution we have developed two small biological machines capable of detecting this range of wavelengths … our eyes.

the electromagnetic spectrum
The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from gamma rays to radio waves, photons moving at a variety of wavelengths & frequencies.

Doctor My Eyes

Our retinas have two kinds of photoreceptive cells: rods and cones. Rods see light & dark while cones see color. We have about 120 million rods per eye and but only 6-7 million cones per eye. Instead of just one kind of cone cell we have three and each kind is tuned to a certain range of wavelengths (short, medium, and long). To put it another way, our three kinds of cone cells are each tuned to see certain ranges of colors – blues (short), greens (medium), reds (long).

Bringing it all together, color blindness is when one (or more) of your cone cell types are either defective or missing entirely. The result is that you are unable to properly see certain wavelengths of colors.

Color Blindness

Why does color blindness happen? While color blindness can be an acquired condition most of the time it’s genetic. The most common forms of color blindness are carried on the X chromosome and because men only have one X chromosome, if it’s defective they’re out of luck. This is why men are more commonly color blind than women. Women have two X chromosomes so a functioning X chromosome will compensate for a defective one. As a result around 8% of men are color blind compared to only around 0.5% of women. That said color blindness isn’t evenly distributed across men – it has a higher prevalence amongst Caucasian men than other ethnicities.

red-green color blindness is the most common form of color blindness
Red-green color blindness is a group of different kinds of color blindness. It’s the most common form of color blindness.

Because cones come in three varieties, and those cones can be defective or absent, the various combinations of factors means there are many forms of color blindness. The most common type is “red-green” color blind (which is a few kinds grouped together) where reds and greens aren’t seen properly and shift to look more like yellows and browns. This is the result of the medium and long (green and red) cone cells being defective or absent. Red-green color blindness accounts for about 99% of all color blindness with about 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women having it.

Blue-yellow color blindness is where blues and greens aren’t seen properly. It’s also genetic but it’s not carried on the X chromosome so men and women are affected relatively evenly. It’s quite rare – around 0.01% of men and women are blue-yellow color blind.

Are you seeing what I’m seeing?

The effects of color blindness range from the benign to the dangerous. Accidentally wearing clothes that don’t match can be embarrassing but confusing “stop” for “go” on a traffic light can be dangerous. Color blind individuals can have difficulty determining the ripeness of fruits & vegetables. They can see sports jerseys as similar and have difficulty tracking games. The designer shorthand that red means error/bad while green means success/good (the traffic light analogy) can make a variety of safety features, dashboards, and websites more difficult to use. One positive is that color blind individuals may be better at detecting camouflage.

What do other animals see?

The concept of “color blindness” is relative. What most humans consider normal is not what most bees would consider normal, or dogs, or any other species. So when people say that most other animals are color blind, it’s just that they can’t see the same spectrum of colors that humans normally see.

To start, most mammals are red-green color blind (which to them is normal). They tend to only have two cone cell types, lacking the third we have to see a wider range of colors. So when a dog can’t find the green tennis ball in the green grass, it’s probably because they really can’t see it (especially if it has stopped rolling). Dogs rely on movement to distinguish between things more than we do. That said dogs have more rods than humans so when it seems like they’re looking at something in the dark, and you can’t see anything, they’re probably seeing something beyond your vision.

The old idea that bulls dislike the color red is untrue – they’re red-green color blind. When a matador waves a red/pink cape to attract a bull the bull is responding to the motion of the cape, not the color. Dolphins and other marine animals see even less due to having only the long wavelength cone type and are monochromatic. Deer are red-green color blind but can see more shorter wavelength colors than we can including some amount of ultraviolet which to us is invisible. Some laundry detergents contain brightening agents that are intended to brighten the colors of your clothes but can make clothes look bright blue to deer. The result is that, even if your clothes are camouflaged, the deer probably saw you long before you saw the deer.

Even beyond seeing ultraviolet, some animals can detect/see the Earth’s magnetic fields. It’s believed that robins can see magnetic field lines as a darker shading on the normal colors they already see, but they can only see it through their right eyes and only on clear days. When cryptochrome molecules in their right eyes are struck by blue light the molecules become active and allow robins to see magnetic fields which they can use to navigate as they migrate north & south. Interestingly, non-migratory bird species seem to have less sensitivity to magnetic fields than migratory birds.

Finally, contrary to popular misconception, bats are not blind and some actually have quite decent sight. While they are red-green color blind like most other mammals they have an ultraviolet sensitivity that helps them hunt as well as detect predators. All of this in addition to echolocation means they are quite capable of seeing and navigating the world around them. That said, some species of bats as well as other nocturnal animals have no cones at all and are really truly color blind.

Eye Color

Humans originally had brown eyes until genetic mutations started making variations. No two eyes are identical, not even your own.

The color & patterns of your eyes is as unique as your fingerprints. Several gene variations all contribute to giving each of your eyes a particular design and shade of color (or colors if you’re heterochromatic). No two eyes are identical.

Originally all humans had dark brown eyes (along with dark brown skin) which helped to reflect some of the harsh rays from the sun. As humans migrated out of Africa and up into Europe, where winter sees less sunlight and the land is further away from the direct sunlight of the equator, there was no longer a need for so much protection from the sun’s harmful UV light. This is where the first mutation in human eye color took place. Sometime between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago the first blue-eyed person was born, from which all other blue-eyed people are descendant.

Eye Colors

Our skin and hair is colored using the brown pigmentation called melanin. The back of our irises also contains melanin which gives our eyes color. Melanin is brown, and so brown eyes using brown pigmentation is easy to understand. Light enters the iris, the melanin absorbs some wavelengths of light while reflecting back out the necessary waves to make the color brown, making brown eyes brown.

You would think then that blue eyes use blue pigmentation, but they don’t. Blue eyes use the same brown pigmentation as brown eyes but in lesser quantities. The other trick is that, since eyes are three dimensional, blue eyes absorb and scatter waves of light differently than brown eyes. The longer light wavelengths (reds & oranges) get broken up inside the eye and only the shorter wavelengths (blues) get reflected back out making blue eyes look blue. This scattering effect of allowing/blocking certain wavelengths is also what gives the sky different colors.

Even though all colors of eyes use brown melanin, variations in the construction of the eye and how it absorbs & scatters various light waves makes an iris a certain color.

Brown, blue, gray, hazel, green – all eye colors use some amount of brown melanin combined with various ways of scattering & absorbing light to make whatever color the eyes are. People with albinism can lack the necessary pigmentation to make their irises as opaque as other people’s. Irises that fail to block excessive light from entering the retina can cause a variety of vision problems including extreme sensitivity to bright light.

What does eye color “do”?

As for any potential purpose, eye color doesn’t “do” much. Unlike other genetic traits which evolution embraced because they helped our chances of survival, eye color variations seems to be largely perpetuated through romantic desirability. People find certain eye colors more attractive and so the genes for those colors live on. Your eyesight isn’t any better or worse because of a certain color eyes. Light travels through the pupil to the retina and so the color of the iris doesn’t change what you see. This is why cosmetic contact lenses can change your eye color without changing what you are seeing – they are only covering the iris.

There are some minor effects of having different eye colors. Because of how light is scattered and absorbed inside the eye, lighter colored eyes are sometimes more sensitive to bright light leaving some to squint more as well as needing to wear sunglasses more frequently. Driving at night can also be difficult because the glare from oncoming traffic can be more harsh. People with light colored eyes are more likely to develop macular degeneration, but people with brown eyes are more likely to develop cataracts. Finally in sports, people with lighter colored eyes tend to be better at hand-eye coordinated activities such as throwing, bowling, golfing, pitching, etc. Brown-eyed people tend to be better at the actions where they react such as hitting a ball, boxing, playing defense, etc.

Added info: Getting reliable statistics on eye colors is difficult. That said brown eyes are the most common color type in the world at somewhere between 55-79%. Gray eyes seem to be the rarest at less than 1%. The eyes of some babies start out as blue but eventually become green or brown as their eyes develop more melanin. Few blue-eyed babies will have blue eyes as adults.

Liz Taylor was said to have violet eyes, but in reality she had blue eyes but with a genetic mutation to have double eyelashes which made her eyes look more purple. David Bowie was known for having two different colored eyes, but this was also an illusion. When he was 15 he got in a fight over a girl and his left eye was damaged leaving the pupil permanently dilated. This gave the impression that he had one black eye and one blue eye, but in reality both of his eyes were blue.

Liz Taylor and David Bowie both had remarkable eyes.