If you have difficulties distinguishing certain colors, you might have a form of color blindness. But does having this vision condition actually mean you can’t see color at all? Here we learn more about how our eyes perceive color, and why some people see colors much better than others.
Seeing in Color
Our eyes work with our brains to translate light into color.
Your eye has two important parts when it comes to color perception: At the front of your eye is the lens. Light enters through the lens and sends it to the retina, a thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye covered with millions of light-sensitive nerve cells: rods and cones. Each of these types of nerve cells has its own important job when it comes to seeing.
Rods are highly concentrated around the edge of the retina and transmit black and white information to our brains. Rods are responsible for helping us see in dim light and for our peripheral vision.
Cones are more concentrated in the center of the retina, and because they contain pigments that send information about color to the brain, it’s our cones that are in charge of what colors we see.
Problems seeing color occur when there’s a problem with these pigments (also called photopigments). When the cones contain all the pigments, eyes see all colors, but if one or more pigments aren’t present, you’ll have trouble seeing certain colors. This is because those cones have a reduced sensitivity to the wavelengths produced by certain light “colors.”
Interestingly, the color of an object isn’t in that object at all; instead, the object’s surface reflects some colors and absorbs the others. We see the reflected colors. For example, a blade of grass isn’t actually green. Its surface reflects the wavelengths our brain perceives as green.
Three Types of Color Blindness: The Basics
Even though it’s called “blindness,” it’s actually not blindness at all. A more accurate term is “color vision deficiency.” In other words, individuals who are color blind tend to see colors as “washed out,” or they confuse one color, such as green, with another color, such as red. Which colors they see depend upon which cones have faulty pigments.
Red-green color blindness
People with this type of color vision deficiency have reduced sensitivity to red light (called protanomaly), green light (deuteranomaly), or both. They may perceive a world of muddy greens dotted with brighter blues and yellows. They likely confuse browns, oranges, and shades of red and green. They also might have a hard time identifying pale shades of colors, and may confuse blues with purples. This is the most common inherited kind of color blindness, affecting 8% of men and 1% of women.
Blue-yellow color blindness
These individuals have reduced sensitivity to blue light (called tritanomaly), and so their world is punctuated by reds, pinks, blacks, whites, grays, and turquoises. They may confuse blues and yellows, violets and reds, and blues and greens, as well as light blues with grays, dark purples with black, greens with blues, and oranges with reds.
People who have this form of color blindness see no color at all, and instead see everything in different shades of grays. This black-and-white TV view of the world is also known as monochromatic vision or monochromacy, and is extremely rare.
Who Is At Risk of Being Color Blind?
Color blindness is often hereditary, so if the condition runs in your family, you’re more likely to have it.
But there are other things that can put you at risk, including physical or chemical damage to your eye or the parts of the brain that process color information, certain eye diseases (such as glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration), or other health conditions (like diabetes and multiple sclerosis). Likewise, certain medications may increase your risk.
Caucasian men are more at risk for color blindness than others.
Is There a Cure for Color Blindness?
While there isn’t a cure, most people adjust and don’t have trouble living with color blindness in daily life, especially if they are born with it.
If color blindness does impact your job or cause issues with everyday tasks, your eye doctor can prescribe special glasses and contact lenses that may help you tell the difference between colors.
Phone apps and other technology can also help those with color blindness improve their color awareness.
If your color blindness is a result of a medication you’re taking or an underlying health condition, your doctor can help you identify the issue and work with you to solve the root of the problem.