This post is a soft personal reflection on what it’s like to be colorblind, and what I learned about my perspective when I just yesterday started using EnChroma glasses, that are intended to allow someone who’s colorblind to see a bit closer to what a normal person would.
I am one of many with a type of colorblindness usually referred to as red-green colorblindness (the non-scientific term). In short, this means that my eyes lack some specific receptors, resulting in me not seeing some colors as deeply/clearly. I’ll get into what that means in practical terms in a moment.
An example of what the difference might look like that I pulled from http://www.colourblindawareness.org/colour-blindness/types-of-colour-blindness/
Another example from http://www.color-blindness.com/deuteranopia-red-green-color-blindness/
Those may be more extreme than my particular case, or they may not. Hard to say.
In practical terms, this has meant to me that I have a harder time distinguishing some colors than other people do. Green and brown can often look very similar when they’re similar shades. The same with blue and purple, and with certain other combinations.
Topographical height maps of terrain in freshman geography were basically a giant troll on my eyes.
But brains adapt. They take whatever information they have to draw conclusions and definitions, and since I exist in a world where everyone else has a definition for colors, my brain was forced to draw correlations even though it had less to work with. So what this often meant for me was that most purples I’d encountered were typically deeper or darker, and most blues were typically lighter or medium tones, so I would often guess based partly on shade. It was sometimes possible to trick me if you showed me a light purple or a dark blue, and I’d guess wrong. Similarly, natural greens are more often a bit brighter, and natural browns are often a bit darker, so I’d draw similar conclusions based off of shade.
In other areas, I simply learned what color things are the same what you would learn an object’s name. The sky is blue. It’s always blue. If you ask me what color the sky is, I’m not going to say it’s purple, because I’m not judging it’s hue on the spot, I’m going by what I know it to be. I use the sky as a baseline for what blue is supposed to be, so I can no longer make an objective judgement about what color my eyes see it as. If everyone in the world told you that concrete was yellow for your entire life, then you’d define concrete as yellow. It would be part of what yellow means.
So for all my life, I’ve had to occasionally play the “what color is that?” game when a new friend learns that I’m colorblind. The game itself doesn’t bother me much. The hard part is usually that they don’t know what they’re in for when they start playing it. They don’t know how my brain defines colors. They don’t understand that I can’t just objectively say what color something is in certain cases.
“What color is the sky?” Blue. What do you expect me to say?
“What color is that grass?” Green. I think I’ve learned that by now.
“What color is my shirt?” Red probably. “Probably? No, just tell me what color you see it as.” It doesn’t work that way.
Often, they wouldn’t understand that there’s a world in which my eyes lack information and I’m forced to guess based on other factors. They weren’t prepared for me to have a conversation with them about how brains adapt and define information, so it would get awkward fast. The game might have worked if they picked the right colors and focused on objects I couldn’t possibly have a definition for, but that’s not something they could reasonably know.
So at times, I’ve tried to describe what colorblindness is from the perspective of being colorblind. I’d usually try to describe it something like this:
Imagine that you’re trying to look at a colorful setting in the dark. The colors are a bit harder to see, right? You can still make them out, but they’re not as vibrant, and they blend together more.
or like this…
Imagine if you took the entire color spectrum and squished it together so there weren’t as many shades of things. Green was closer to brown, and they blended together more.
Neither of those were particularly great descriptions, but they were the best I had come up with at the time. The notable thing to me now is that my perspective was entirely focused on the symptom, the practical problem: I had a hard time telling certain colors from other colors, and I wanted to find a way in which I could describe a similarly difficult situation for someone else. It didn’t really describe the root of the problem at all, partly because I lacked the ability to fully understand the root of the problem.
So now I’ve tried these glasses, and my perspective has shifted a bit. When I first put them on, I didn’t immediately notice the differences. The world is still the world. The shapes of everything were the same. They all moved the same way. There weren’t suddenly ghosts wandering around that I could see. It was all still the same place… just different in some small almost inperceivable way. It was like someone applied a subtle photoshop filter to everything. Or like I was looking at the world in an HD screen, pretending like I could tell the difference.
A smaller pamphlet specifically recommends that you don’t pull the glasses up and down to compare the differences, at least not for the while, because your brain needs time to settle in with the new information and start to adapt. I wore them for perhaps an hour, and I started to be able to pick out the differences as I wandered around looking at things. Purple and magenta were richer. Purple has always been my favorite colors (thus why I dye my hair that way regularly), but now it was even better. The green plants everywhere seemed… healthier. I used the term “more moist.” Like the difference between California foliage and rain forest foliage. More alive.
There were beach unbrellas, the kind with many different shades arced around them. They were perhaps the most notable “new” thing in those first few minutes. They were pure strong colors, so the differences were very obviously more pronounced than I’d ever remembered. They were crazy and weird.
My girlfriend drove me home while I stared out the window. It was the greens that really hit me the most. Green everywhere. So much more bold than the “greens” I had defined in my head before.
At that point, the obvious truth of what colorblindness had always been described to me as started making more sense. I’d always focused on the practical inconvenience of colors that looked too similar, but only now did I start being able to understand why that was happening. Only now did I even understand why it was called red-green colorblindness, something that had always been confusing because those were not the colors I had trouble with the most. Now I can offer you a new description of what I see color blindness as:
Imagine that every pure red and every pure green in the world is washed out. A bit less alive. Mixed with a bit more grey. Aged by past years. Now imagine that all the colors that used red and green are slightly that way too: browns, purples, oranges. That’s the world I live in. A world in which many things are more aged and washed out.
The reason reds had never given me trouble is because when they occurred, they were usually strong and differentiatable. There aren’t a ton of shades of natural red pushing put against other colors regularly in life. Greens were a problem because that’s exactly what greens do all the time. They’re everywhere, in every shade, and constantly pushing up against other colors near them in the spectrum. Blue-green ocean water. Green leaves against brown bark. Live green grass against dead brown grass.
When I wear those glasses, plant-life is far more interesting. There’s more separating one plant from the plant next to it than there used to be. More separating the part of the leaf with sun on it from the part of the leaf in shade.
And so I learned a valuable lesson about perspective. A lesson I always knew abstractly, but that became far more real when I could take the last 32 years of my life-experience and suddenly redefine a small portion directly. I wish more people could have the opportunity to undergo a transition like this with something as basic and constant as the definitions of color.
And now I’m renewed in my fascination about what a mantis-shrimp really sees: