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« Facts for the Day | Main | Sports Car Magazines: Great Writing or Solid Info? »

October 13, 2005

Are You Seeing True Colors?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't buy or subscribe to health magazines. Nor do I set the oven timer to remind me to flick on the Five O'Clock News' nightly "health specialist" segment.

Given this state of blissful ignorance, what I'll describe here was real news to me, if not to you.

The latest part to fall off the ol' jalopy was the lens in my right eye, thanks to a cataract that developed over the last year. The lens replacement took place a couple weeks ago, and I'll spare you the details.

A few days ago I was flying from San Jose to Seattle, gazing out the window at the California Central Valley. Suddenly, I noticed something.

Seen through my left eye, the fields and hills had a nice, warm, gold-tinted look. But my retooled right eye revealed a harsher, more blue-ish landscape.

Which view was real? My guess was that since I was looking through some synthetic material in my right eye and good ol' protoplasm in my left, that nice golden view was the correct one.

Wrong.

Back at the clinic for my two-week post-op checkup I mentioned the difference in color vision. I was told that it was my right eye that was seeing true colors and the left one was providing a yellowish tinge due to age-related discoloration of the natural lens.

All of which has gotten me to wonder what I've been taking in regarding the world, painted representations of it, and colored man-built objects over the years that my lenses were imperceptibly changing. And what about the paintings I've recently done or am working on -- have I distorted colors in them?

As for the paintings, both the reality and the paints on the palette were equally distorted, so that is likely a non-issue.

And regarding what I'd been seeing? Well, it was pleasant and in some respects nicer (that warm, golden tint) than the reality that it wasn't so very distant from.

What's interesting is that by shutting one eye or the other, I now can get two different color-perceptions of the world about me.

What about your color perception? Take a look at a sheet of white paper (typing or copier paper, not newsprint) over by a window. Do you see a stark white? Or is it a slightly mellow white? This test is pretty rough, but it might give you a clue.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at October 13, 2005




Comments

Here is an interesting article written by someone who also has cataracts.

Even Monet's paintings could have been affected by his perception of color due to cataracts according to this article (toward the bottom).

Posted by: mattie on October 13, 2005 9:13 PM



I wear sun "shades" all the time because of photosensitivity. Often forget to take them off at movies. I guess I'm seeing everything with a sepia tinge!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 13, 2005 10:33 PM



In high school, a friend and I had the same make of sunglasses, one tinted a pure red and the other a bluish shade of green. Of course, we swapped one lens out and wore the mismatch for a couple of weeks. For focal vision, it got to the point where it wasn't clear what tint things were under. I can't really phrase this any other way, and it may be pretty difficult to imagine if you haven't done something similar -- but it wasn't a blending; it was a profound uncertainty in determining "real" colors from qualia.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 14, 2005 2:06 AM



I believe that on the contrary the golden tint was real. Your brain must have compensated over the years and must now be applying a corrective bias to subtract the extra gold tint - something which can be done perfectly for all colour data that was not pushed by the error bias off the edge of the representable range. That is, as long as the addition of the error term didn't destroy information by removing distinctions it could have been corrected and probably was. Yes, I know colour vision is more complicated than that, but something along those lines definitely happens when you wear tinted sunglasses for a while.

Colour perception doesn't just depend on the mix of frequencies reaching the eye, but the pattern of neighbouring colours and intensities - and this relative data is not changed by adding a fixed offset to it unless that offset swamps the data by pushing it to the perceptual limit.

Posted by: Graham Asher on October 14, 2005 8:48 AM



A few years ago I took a seminar at IESNA on basic lighting for architects and interior designers; one of the first lectures was called Light, vision and perception, right after Light and color. At the conclusion I was given indispensable handbook written by lighting engineer professionals.

A paragraph describing age as one of factors influencing perception, reads:

...Visual requirements of the older age... are different from those of the younger persons in following ways:

*thickening of the yellow crystalline lens decreases the amount of light reaching the retina, increases scatter within the eye and reduces the range of distances that can be properly focused (presbyopia)
* reduction of the pupil size decreases the amount of light reaching the retina...


We are only able to see color of the object if it is present in the spectrum of the light reflected off that object. If receiving mechanism of the eye due to age-related changes reduces the amount and quality of light to be analysed by color perception mechanism, the colors are percieved differently. Apparently, eye filters off colors of higher color temperature (or shortest wavelengh), so everything gets yellowish hint under same white light that lets younger person to see wider color palette.


Posted by: Tatyana on October 14, 2005 9:43 AM



Had lens replacements about 12 years ago...started career in painting that is stronger every day...it wasn't until I was in danger of losing my vision completely that I truly appreciated the gift of sight! It doesn't matter what "true" color is in art...it only matters that it seems "true" to you, unlike some other verities!

Posted by: K Heck on October 14, 2005 9:56 AM



Interesting! I've noticed something similar with my eyes over the years: ON OCCASSION one eye seems to have more of a "cool" blue/grey filter and one seems to have more of a "warm" golden/pink filter.

Since I first noticed it while lying awake in the morning, I thought it might have to do with which side of my head was on the pillow (and the resulting different in pressure on my eyes). Later, I also occasionally noticed it outdoors, but it was hard to test over the years since the effect seemed to come and go in intensity (and I would misplace my notes).

Ultimately I figured it had to do with one eye perhaps needing a stronger prescription than the other (which has been true in my case since my early 30s -- which is when I may have first noticed the effect).

I don't go to an ophthalmologist frequently, but the few times I've gone, my recollection is that the ophthalmologist wasn't alarmed, but didn't have much to say about it either. (In their defense, by the time I would see an ophthalmologist, I couldn't remember which eye had which color filter, etc.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 14, 2005 11:31 AM



Calling Oliver Sacks! How interesting to think about how the ways our biological equipment changes over time affects our experience of life ... I remember reading that taste sensitivity apparently goes 'way down with age, alas, which is a reason why older people start to want more salt -- anything for a little taste. I'm 51, and my eyes aren't a heck of a lot worse than they were when I was 15 in terms of focusing. Haven't noticed anything funny with colors yet. But they wake up much slower, and they tire an awful lot faster. I'm forever sticking things I want to read under brighter lights. And they're usually pooped at the end of the day, which makes the hour-of-reading-before-bed routine much less likely than it once was. (I favor audiobooks these days for much of my heavy book-reading.)

I know that ears grow more touchy with age, at least until they actually start to lose hearing. Up to 30, many young people love loud noises, loud music, etc. After 30, I'm told, everyone starts to experience what was once "exciting" as "painful" instead.

I wonder how stuff like muscle and joint aches and creakinesses affect our sense of what life is like. I've been taking beginning yoga classes for a couple of years now. And it's amazing to me how much it improves my mood -- the breathing, the stretching, the slowing-down ... I have many fewer aches and pains. And my body stops feeling like a car wreck and more like a nice thing to inhabit. Amazing how much cheerier having slightly looser hips and a slightly more flexible spine can make you!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 14, 2005 11:42 AM



You know, I knew a pathologist who was color blind and it used to really trip out us other pathologists, because the color and shape and 'texture' of the way things looks under the microscope is how me make diagnoses; but obviously he was able to make the same diagnosis without the same range of colors we had. Interesting, no?

Posted by: MD on October 14, 2005 5:30 PM



"we" make, not "me" make. I am really such a non-previewing loon :)

Posted by: MD on October 14, 2005 5:31 PM



For reasons that I don't entirely recall, my eye doctor was doing some work on color vision and tested me. My eyes kick ass. He called me back in a couple more times over the years (but was never able to explain, in a way that made sense to me, how I could have eyes that did one thing so very well and yet were nearsighted.)

In my own nerdly, ignorant way, I think about this scale a lot - especially when I read about some kind of other test that assumes people's hearing, color acuity, or taste are in a small average range.

It's pretty well understood that the average male doesn't not have the color vision of the average female, but there are richer differences. It seems to be the case that, among adult Americans in this day and age, you have a majority of people who see color-wise, hear, and taste pretty much the same thing, and then a percentage of people (15-25 percent depending on whose paper you're looking at) who are in a completely different zone yet count as "normal" because they are not deficient. Surely what one attends to is influenced by the distinctions one can make. (FWIW, many so-called color-blind animals can see the differences, but - perhaps because the distinction is so minor - don't attend to them. Once you teach them that color is a factor, they do fine on task requiring color vision, but it's a huge lesson that takes a long time to learn.)

Perhaps over time people who have super hearing or super taste or whatever learn to measure by a standard vocabulary instead of their own sophisticated experience. At the very least, that would be what you have been painting.

People who can't see colors or taste or hear as well as the norm - don't know. Do know of two people who made it quite a long ways toward flying for the Navy before they discovered that they were too color blind. And I think we all know someone - probably a man - who didn't realize how deaf he was for years. Perhaps there's a link between the genes for bull-headedness and the genes for being severely color-blind or going deaf early.

They say everything looks blue after cataract surgery. That must be odd for little old ladies who garden or sew.

Ever shine a UV light on flowers and insects. Interesting...

Posted by: j.c. on October 14, 2005 6:44 PM



Thank you all for your interesting comments and links. Some of this is pretty technical, so I'll tip-toe away from the Science bits and make a few other responses.

Mattie -- During the period when the cataract was developing, I considered writing about artists who went blind, and I still might. An interesting thing about cataracts is that they diffuse the light passing through the lens (rather than keeping the beams sharp), resulting in an effect of looking through gauze. The greater the light entering the eye, the foggier the image. And the reverse applies, so one sees best in a lowly-lit room. A painter such as Monet, who often worked in sunlight, would be greatly hampered by a cataract, whereas an artist whose work didn't require direct sunshine could manage much better.

MD and j.c. -- Interesting points on color blindness. Until I get my other eye retooled, I'm in the odd position of being able to KNOW that I have differeing color vision and what those differences are; someone who's colorblind has to accept what he sees as being reality and then deal with it as best he can.

BTW, one of the links mentioned that one byproduct of cataracts is a yellowing of the lens. My left lens has an incipient cataract, so it might be that, and not just aging, that is making the difference.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 14, 2005 10:16 PM



Donald, according to this simplified FAQ oftalmological site, yellowing or darkening of the lens and subsequent deficiencies in color perception occurs with age. Young healthy lens is transparent and colorless. Cataract is murkying of the lens, its gel body turns milky - but not yellow.

Color blindness: it is a real torture for someone who trained her eyes to distinguish slight variations of underlying pigments in the complex color (pink-based brown, f.ex., or purple-hinted warm gray) to have a relative for a client, who insist "This isn't green, it's blue"...


Posted by: Tatyana on October 15, 2005 10:35 AM



Oh, sorry the link didn't work. It's here: http://www.preventblindness.org/eye_problems/colorvision.html

Forgive me shameless plugging, but recently I too was thinking of color, if from a different point.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 15, 2005 11:03 AM



I've noticed difference since my teens! Could never get any explanation from the eyedocs. Now in my 70's I have glaucoma and my specialist seems to think it is damage due to my high pressure. Will not listen that I had it pre-glaucoma or even listen to my theory that it might be due to childhood diseases like measles or mumps. Maybe we are born this way!
Peter.

Posted by: peter on October 16, 2005 10:38 AM






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