The Shades of Color Blindness - Smart Vision Labs

Do you remember “The Dress?” People were agonizing over whether it was blue and black or white and gold. What did you think it was?

This photo made a lot of people think about the eyes and specifically why we see colors. It also made many of us wonder if we have a vision defect and are not seeing colors as they really are.

The Science of Color Blindness

On a purely physical basis, being able to see color involves a few special parts of the eyes called photoreceptors. The two main types are rods and cones and they are named after their respective shapes. Both are located at the back of the eyes and each has a specific function.

After light reaches the eyes, these photoreceptors create electrical signals that ‘tell’ the brain what color the eyes are seeing. Rods help us see in lower light and the images will be mostly black and white depending on the darkness around you. Cones are what allow us to see in color and they need bright light to work well. The three types of cones enable us to see the main colors: red, green and blue.

Sometimes a genetic defect can make one or more of the cones not work properly. This condition is often called color blindness and affects about nine percent of the population. Men are usually more affected than women.

When is Color Blindness a Problem?

People with color vision deficiency often report that this condition is frustrating but not severely problematic. For instance, some of the milder problems associated with this impairment involve wearing mismatched clothing or eating unripe bananas since a green and yellow banana are both shades of the same color to them.

Differentiating between the red and green of a traffic light can be difficult but this can be easily solved by noticing where the bulb is lit up since red is always at the top. Another problem is undercooking meat since the red color may not be easily distinguished.

Overall, being color blind is not considered a disability; rather it is a vision problem that may be improved through special lenses that enhance color perception.

What Color is the Dress?

The dress is blue and black but the bluish tint in the photo changes a person’s perception of the dress’s true color. That’s why the black part looks gold and the blue part looks white.

The reason why people see the dress differently is based on their individual sensitivity to the blue lighting in the photo. Our individual visual system decides if the blue illumination is either more or less reflective on the dress. By discounting the blue, you would see a white and gold dress.

Are Seeing Colors Purely Arbitrary?

Although there is a biological process for determining the presence of color in the things around us, there is also a level of physical interpretation involved. The electrical signals from the cones to the brain can be ‘wrong’ if one or more of the cones are not functioning properly. In that case, the person may not see the true color, but a shade of it or none of it. Sometimes color blindness is only present in dim light, with the person seeing colors correctly in brighter conditions. A vision exam can help diagnose this condition and make you aware of it.

And the next time someone asks you if the dress is blue and black or white and gold, you will have a better understanding of why you see it as you do.

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