• Ritoban Mukherjee

A Rare Few Women Can See Colors That No One Else Can

Updated: Jan 13

“The little stones jump out at me with oranges, yellows, greens, blues and pinks, I’m kind of shocked when I realize what other people aren’t seeing.”

He was performing a simple test on color blindness when Dr. H.L. de Vries of the University of Groningen noticed something rather abnormal. You see, the eyes of a typical human are composed of three types of cone cells, each corresponding roughly to the red, blue and green colors of the visible spectrum. Together, these cone cells are responsible for our perception of color and light vision. 

In a color-blind male, however, one of these cone cells is a mutant cell, typically less sensitive to either red or green, or, in some rare cases, blue. Dr. de Vries, therefore, had a selection of color-blind men perform a simple test of color matching where they had to mix red and green light to create a specific shade of yellow. 

If the men were color blind, which they were, they would need to add more red or green than usual to obtain the required shade due to their insensitivity to one of the colors. The doctor also just happened to test the daughter of one of these color-blind men, just out of curiosity, and found that although not color-blind herself, she still needed to add more red than usual in order to obtain the requested shade of yellow.

This was unusual, but Dr. de Vries had a theory. The mothers and daughters of color-blind men, although not color-blind themselves, are usually found to be genetic carriers of color blindness. So, instead of possessing the usual three different types of cone cells, they possess four — three normal cone cells corresponding to either red, green or blue, and one mutant cone cell. 

Dr. de Vries theorized that it was this fourth mutant cone cell found in carrier women that was responsible for their unique way of seeing things. Sadly, however, the doctor failed to realize the importance of his discovery and buried his findings on the absolute last page of his research paper, never to revisit the issue again.

Several decades past, Gabrielle Jordan of the Newcastle University in the United Kingdom and Dr. John Mollon from Cambridge grew interested in Dr. de Vries’ research. In 2007, they developed a new way of testing vision in four-coned women. 

Gathering a group of twenty-five carrier women with four types of cone cells in their eyes, the two scientists placed them in a dark room and had them peer through a device. What they saw was three circles of colored light, all same to the eyes of a typical trichromat, but to a tetrachromat, i.e., a person with four types of active cone cells, one of the circles looked slightly different in color. Not much luck. Most of these women said that all the circles looked the same. 

And yet, there was one — a woman identified only by the code name of cDa29 — who could spot the difference with baffling accuracy. Jordan and Mollon were overjoyed. They had just discovered the first human tetrachromat ever known to science. 

With a fully-active mutant cone cell in her eye, this woman could perceive no less than ninety-nine million more colors than your average human. They revealed their findings to the world during a detailed interview with Discover Magazine, which can be found here.

cDa29 wasn’t, however, the first human tetrachromat to ever exist. And she was certainly not the last. Since that article on Discover Magazine, multiple women across the world have come forward showing similar abilities. 

Let’s take Concetta Antico, for example. A diagnosed tetrachromat confirmed by the University of California, Antico is the first person to ever be able to communicate her unique vision to ordinary trichromats. As a professional painter, Antico uses her understanding of color and her unique eyesight to give people a glimpse of what the world might look like when your eyes can see a hundred times the number of colors any ordinary human can see. 

According to Kimberly Jameson from the University of California, it is Antico’s artistic background that has trained her well to recognize all these colors and make proper use of her tetrachromatic abilities. But not everyone is so fortunate.

According to Jordan, four-coned women make up for at least 12% of the world female population. And yet, only a handful of them possess this extraordinary vision. 

He believes that it is probably due to the fact that the fourth mutant cone cell isn’t normally active in carrier women, and it is only through regular practice at recognizing various colors in the ultraviolet spectrum, preferrably inside a lab, that these women can unlock their unique abilities. As for what it’s like to actually see through the eyes of a tetrachromat, just take a look at some of these illustrations by Concetta Antico herself.

While supervision may be rare in humans, it is actually relatively common in the rest of the living world, especially among insects. Butterflies, beetles, and honeybees can all see up to a hundred million different colors, sometimes even more. Goldfish and zebrafish have four types of cone cells in their eyes. Pigeons, doves and other foraging birds have also been known to be tetrachromatic. 

What’s so special about being a tetrachromat, you ask? Probably nothing, unless you are a foraging animal. But for artists, painters and designers who have this ability, this presents the unique opportunity to see the world from a whole new perspective, vibrant and beautiful and full of shades and hues no ordinary eye can ever perceive. Plus, it makes for a hell of a bar story.

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