You pair a black shirt with blue-ish pants and when you ask her why she’s wincing, she says something like, “it’s just that that’s a very green black and your pants have so much orange in them that they don’t match.”
She uses words like “chartreuse” and describes colors as “burnt” or “heathered.” At a paint store you feel like you could burst into tears when she says that of the 91 white options, none of them are quite the white she’s looking for.
No, you’re not dating someone with an overactive imagination and a month-long interior design course under their belt, you could be dating a, wait for it, tetrachromat.
Have you ever sat on the toilet and daydreamed about how awesome it would be to have ESP or a movie-worthy hidden talent that nobody else has? Well, women who are tetrachromats come pretty close.
Regular old trichromats (that’s you and me) possess only three basic color sensing cones in our retinas: blue, green and red. Just like the tiny pixels on an old tube TV, these three can combine hundreds of different gradations to form around a million separate colors.
But tetrachromats, the big show-offs, have an extra cone which senses what we’d maybe call a kind of orange. Multiply this with all the other possibilities and you bump the number of perceivable hues up to 100 million.
In other words, the girl going on and on about a peach undertone or how her favorite color is blue with a pink cast is not being fruity – she’s actually seeing a completely different color to you.
In fact, Susan Hogan, a possible tetrachromat, claims she has “a very hard time even giving names to colors because I see so many other colors inside them” which might not be bragging, but sure sounds like it. Gabriele Jordan of Newcastle University in Great Britain has been studying the genetics behind what causes this condition.
Because the genes for it are found on the X chromosome, and women have two X chromosomes, they have the opportunity to have one type of special cone gene on one chromosome and another type on the other chromosome. More rare is having two distinct green cone genes on either chromosome.
The result is that the stars align and a woman is born with a fourth cone that lies somewhere on the spectrum between the red and green ones. Unfortunately, those of the XY persuasion will never know what these 2-3% of women are actually seeing, which if you know any of them might not come as a surprise.
Before you get jealous, consider that humans actually aren’t such hot stuff when it comes to vision. Compared to many other birds and reptiles that use four-color perception or even see in ultraviolet, the human visual range is actually rather limited.
Research for now is focused on the genetic aspect of this mutation, but for a scientist to design an experiment to test for a sense he himself doesn’t possess has proved… interesting. Some have claimed the slim science behind the concept is sorely lacking and that it’s not a given that human beings can even see in four colors.
If there’s anything to the claims, though, those of us who have been bumbling along with no damn clue about the difference between fuchsia and magenta will no more be able to understand a tetrachromat’s world than a blind person can understand when you tell them that something is “pink.”