The world is a truly fascinating place, filled with endlessly colorful things to see, marvelous sights to take in, and spectacular views to enjoy.
From places like the Sahara Desert to the Grand Canyon to Salar de Uyuni to the Mediterranean Sea, the world holds so much beauty and majesty that is a visual feast for our eyes.
Our eyes contain special cone cells that enable us to see a broad spectrum of colors. The average human is a “trichromat”, meaning they have three different types of cone cells that enable them to see around 100 different shades each—which, factoring in all possible combinations, means more than 1 million color variations distinguishable by the human eye.
Some people have just two functioning types of cone cells, which means they’re only able to see around 10,000 colors. These people are typically called “color blind” because they can see a fraction of all the colors in the world. Dogs, monkeys, and most mammals are also “dichromats” with two functioning cone cell types.
But, according to one new study , it’s possible that there are people who have FOUR functioning cone cells in their eyes, which enables them to see an even broader spectrum of color than the average human.
For more than 25 years, researchers in the UK have been searching for people who have extra eye cone receptor cells. This began based on a suggestion from a Dutch scientist back in 1948. HL de Vries was studying the eyes of dichromats and found something odd about the female children of color blind people. Color blind men typically only possess two regular cone cells, along with one mutant cone cell that has lower sensitivity to either red or green light. But the mothers and daughters of those color blind men had three normal cones plus a fourth mutant cone.
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This was the first time that a fourth cone cell was discovered. Though it was a mutant cone that didn’t function “normally”, it suggested that it was possible that a fourth cone could exist, and could actually function properly and thus give people—women, in particular—the ability to see color beyond the typical range.
It was only in the 1980s, however, that a scientist from Cambridge University named John Mollon began an active search for women with a functioning fourth cone. He tested the daughters of color blind men, but found that though they had the fourth mutant cone, it didn’t work, making them “trichromats” like the rest of ordinary people.
But in 2007, one of Mollon’s fellow researchers attempted a different test to find a fourth functioning cone. Gabriele Jordan, a neuroscientist from Newcastle University, collected 25 women with a fourth cone cell type and tried a new test: putting them in a dark room and using a special light device to flash three colored circles. These circles would appear “normal” to a trichromat, but for someone with that fourth cone, it would appear different.
And so it did!
One woman, identified only by the designation cDa29, was able to tell the difference between the colors—EVERY SINGLE TIME.
The fourth cone cell receptor in her eyes was fully functioning, enabling her to see an additional 100 shades of color. Factoring in for all the possible combinations, that means she may be able to see 100 million possible shades—more than 99 million more than the average person.
The hunt for more true tetrachromats is ongoing, but thanks to this discovery, researchers now believe there are many more people with tetrachromatic vision (being nicknamed “super-vision”) alive in the world today. Most tetrachromats have no need to use their fourth cell cone type, as they are able to see in the full trichromat color spectrum. Modern manufacturing of “colored” items accommodates trichromats. It’s only when subjected to testing that the fourth cone cell type is activated. For this reason, many tetrachromats may never realize how special their eyesight is.
But isn’t it amazing to think that there are people out there in the world who have the capability to see a whole new spectrum of colors and shades that the average person can’t? It takes “seeing life through different eyes” to a whole new level! People are literally able to see a world of brightness and variety that others cannot, all because of the structure of their eyes.
This is just the beginning of the neuroscientific research into the possibility of additional color-seeing capacity, and doctors will continue searching for more tetrachromats in order to gain a better understanding of how their eyes work to perceive color. Who knows, one day the average person may be able to see that extra “layer” of color using devices that function like the fourth cone cell receptor!
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