Yes, I Am Color Blind

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I vaguely remember how our physics teacher mused in front of the class about how boring life must be for a color blind. To not be able to truly appreciate a painting with all its colors seemed depressing to him. Well, I could have told him, right there and then, life is depressing enough even without all the gaudy paintings.

Thing is, it is not easy to understand color blindness, the fundamental reason of course being that no one can look at the world through someone else’s eyes. But there’s something else blurring the view, and I think it might be how we talk about color and color vision. All biological evidence suggest, I guess, that color vision works with the same mechanism among most people, and that it produces roughly the same results, i.e. a certain wavelength in the light spectrum is perceived in a similar manner (although not necessarily identical manner) by most people. Persons who are declared color blind have some sort of deficiency in this mechanism.

The question is then, how do color blind people view the world. Well, I obviously have some sort of color vision deficiency and I think the key to understanding how the world appears for someone with an imperfect color vision is to examine the whole concept of color vision. Why do such a thing even exist among us? Why don’t we see just from light to no light? The obvious answer is that it must be connected to some evolutionary advantage to be able to discriminate between colors, but that also makes it true that since a large portion of the population aren’t able to discriminate between certain colors the way the rest of the population can, deficient color vision can’t be a disastrous disadvantage.

I think that a more productive way of thinking about color vision deficiencies would be to begin with historicizing the concept of color vision. Sure, it has always been important to be able to spot the odd poisonous berry, but the way we are interacting with colors nowadays is just worlds apart from what it was just a few centuries ago. For example, comparing the usage of color terminology in Homeric literature to how we talk about color today, one could draw the conclusion that the old Greeks were color blind and color mental. Their color palette was extremely limited (i.e. metallic, black, white, red and yellow-green) and incomprehensibly twisted, the most famous example coming from the Odyssey, where the sea is being described as being wine-dark. One might think that Homer uses some kind of poetic license, but the fact is that there wasn’t a word for the concept ‘blue’, and there isn’t one in the New Testament either. This is surely not a coincidence, because the scarcity of words for that part of the color spectrum seems to be a common thread for most ancient cultures. That doesn’t mean that the ability to distinguish the color blue is something that has evolved only recently (which is what the person who observed this oddity thought). Instead, it seems to be closely related to the fact that there wasn’t any need to distinguish blue from any other color. The sky and the sea, which appear so unmistakably blue to us, was just there, and there was really no other blue colors to worry about. Blue wasn’t part of daily life the way red (as in, for example, blood) and yellow-green (relating to freshness) was. There was no real need for the concept of blue, and that is why it wasn’t seen as a color. Both red and yellow-green seem to appear before blue in the history of all languages, or at least most of them.

The way colors and different hues of colors are named and even encoded today seem to spring not from our biological ability to perceive them but from our new-found ability to manipulate colors. Our language of color is rich only because we have had reasons to be able to distinguish between them. The world was surely as colorful back then as it is now, but as you couldn’t do much in the area of color manipulation, the idea of having names for hundreds of colors never took hold, did it ever occur to someone.

So what would this mean for color blindness? Well, it means that even if there’s sort of biological “standard” regarding the ability to perceive colors, the notion of being color blind is only really relevant in the light of the standards around color vision that is being set by language and society. It also helps to explain why color blindness was something that was “discovered” quite recently in our history.

2 comments to Yes, I Am Color Blind

  • Vivienne

    I read somewhere that an indication of how primitive a language is, is the number of words that it has for colours. Which made me think about the Irish word for pink, “bándearg” which literally means white-red.

    Thanks for this, it is a lovely piece of writing. I can’t believe English is your second (third?) language.

  • Hi,

    I remember taking a colour blindness test for acquiring my driving license.

    No wonder why the test was equilavent to more than 15% of the theoretical test.’

    Thanks for bringing this post.

    Cheers

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