Being Color-Blind

All right. To start off with, I’m not that color-blind, and if you point to something and ask me what color it is, I guarantee I will lie to you. What color is that tree’s leaves? Blue, obviously. I might say pink, but some trees do turn actually pink in autumn. I’ve never heard of a tree with blue leaves. Shrubs though, they can be blue. I think? I guess I wouldn’t be the one to know.

Just like a lot of other things, color-blindness is a spectrum. Some people only have a little trouble differentiating similar colors, some people can only see some colors properly, and then there’s people who can’t differentiate colors at all and see everything in monochrome or gray scale. From there, the spectrum is broken into different types of color-blindness such as red-blue and blue-yellow, and then further divided into scientific names that I don’t feel like repeating here, like protanomaly, protanopia, deuteranomaly, tritanopia, etc.

I’ve been told my color-blindness is red-green, but I don’t know any more specifically than that. What I do know is that it took years for me to realize that holly trees have red berries, the brown pillows in my house were actually pink, and that gray striped shirt I liked so much while growing up was actually green. There were mild recurring arguments over the last two of those. Then I was shown an object of similar color next to it, and I realized yes, those are pink, and yes, that is green. Then the next time I saw them, they were brown and gray again, and everything was better.

My own color-blindness, as you can probably tell already, is really pretty mild, and I never would have known about it (apart from the disappointing arguments over colors) if it wasn’t for color-blindness tests, which I’ll get to in a little bit. First, though, I wanted to describe what I see a little better. It’s not that I can’t see color, as seems to be commonly believed, or even that I mix them up (I guess I sort of do, but not really. I’m never going to mistake red for blue, unless you ask me what color a strawberry is). Rather, I have trouble distinguishing colors in the dark, or at a distance, or when a color is surrounded by other colors. Examples of those might be a billboard at night, a holly tree with some berries on it, flowering bushes in the distance, autumn landscapes in the mountains (which I’ve been told over and over are extremely pretty), trying to cook meat on a grill at night and, saddest of all, the wonderful swathe of reds and oranges and whatever else that is the Grand Canyon. I see the colors, but I can’t really take them in all at once. I see a holly tree and see green, and then, if I happen to notice the berries, I can see the red, but it requires a conscious effort on my part to distinguish them from the surrounding leaves, especially if I’m at any sort of real distance.

And that’s where color-blindness tests come in. Most people, I’m sure, think they’re kind of dumb. Either you see the dotted numbers and shapes easily and wonder what the deal is, or you see nothing and also wonder what the deal is. I land right smack in between. A lot of them, I can see easily (again, not that color-blind), but most of them I can’t, and those are the ones that I find fun. I enjoy those tests because, instead of seeing it it all at once, I get to go dot by dot and determine which color each dot is and slowly but surely trace out whatever number or shape there happens to be. Sometimes, when I’ve figured out the colors of the dots, I can finally see the figure as a whole, but more often than not I have to just trace the shape and guess. Normally I’m correct, but occasionally I’ll mix up a 5 and a 6, or maybe a … Actually that’s generally the one I get wrong, that and 6 and 8. They’re just so similar when they’re made of dots.

If you want a basic overview of how human (and animal) color vision works, I suppose I can do that real quick. If you’re not interested, then … I don’t know, stop reading now? So, in the back of your eye, in the retina, there are things called rods and cones, and cones are the structures that detect color. Any sort of eye trauma or infection can damage them and cause color-blindness (not to mention regular blindness), but generally in the case of color-blindness, they’re formed improperly in the first place due to defects in their controlling genes. There are three types of cones: those that detect red, those that detect green, and those that detect blue. When one of the types of cones are damaged or missing, your eyes don’t detect that color as well, if at all, and so your brain interprets what you see differently than most everyone else. That’s about it, actually. It’s surprisingly simple. Bad color receivers in your eyes equals bad color vision.

So yes, I’m color-blind, but no, I’m not that color-blind. I know that you go when the light turns blue, stop when it’s pink, you cut the purple wire and never the yellow one, and that you stop cooking meat when it turns white. Apart from that, if you’re interested in what I used to fact-check whatever I’ve said in this post or just want to learn a little bit more, I used:

As a quick aside, googling color-blindness tests in a public library is not always a good idea. I didn’t know I was looking at something inappropriate until Kelly started laughing at me and told me to put it away. I don’t suggest tracing an unknown test with your finger. Speaking from experience.