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Scientists have discovered world's first tetrachromat - can see 100x more colors

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Espresso

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She sees 100 million colors.


Per the CBC

Most people can see a pretty wide range of colours - about a million hues, according to scientists.

We perceive all those gradations in colour using cells in our eyes called "cones". Most people have three cones, making us "trichromats". People with colour blindness have only two cones that function normally, so they're called "dichromats".

Now, a scientist in Newcastle, England has apparently discovered a woman who can see 99 million more colours than the average person. Her ability to perceive all those colours is extremely rare.

She's a tetrachromat, with four cone cells in her eyes, and she's able to see many colours that haven't even been named, since trichromats can't perceive them.

Dr. Gabriele Jordan from Newcastle University has been searching for a tetrachromat for 20 years, and two years ago, she says she found her first one.

Although the woman (who hasn't been named publicly - she's a doctor living in northern England) is said to be the first tetrachromat discovered by scientists, experts believe there are others.

In the course of their search, Dr. Jordan's team has found many other people with four cones in their eyes, but none of them passed the test for "super colour vision."

"We now know tetrachromacy exists," Dr. Jordan told Discover Magazine. "But we don't know what allows someone to become functionally tetrachromatic, when most four-coned women aren't."

As for why the team is focusing their attention on women, it all goes back to the beginning of the theory of tetrachromatic sight.

In 1948, Dutch scientist HL de Vries was studying colour-blind men when he incidentally also tested the daughters of one of his subjects.

He discovered that while the father had two normally functional cones and one mutant cone that is less sensitive to reds and greens, his daughter could perceive a wider range of hues of red than the average person.

It turned out the mothers and daughters of some colour-blind men had four cones, instead of the usual three. In all, Dr. Jordan estimates about 12 per cent of women have an extra cone in their eyes.

But in the vast majority of those women, the extra cone is inactive. Still, some scientists think it could be activated with practice.

Jay Neitz, a vision researcher at the University of Washington, says part of the problem is that the world is geared toward the vision of people with three cones.

"Most of the things that we see as coloured are manufactured by people who are trying to make colours that work for trichromats," he said. "It could be that our whole world is tuned to the world of the trichromat."

But one interesting quirk: it's impossible for a tetrachromat to express how the world looks, in much the same way we can't explain a colour to someone who's been blind since birth.

For now, Dr. Jordan is excited about her discovery, and she plans to keep searching for more tetrachromatic people.
 

Grym

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swear I heard a story about this on Radiolab's podcast previously...

..maybe not confirmed yet at that time?
 

Fenderputty

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I would love to see what she see's. I guess I'll have to live with only the million hues I can see. Ignorance is bliss.
 

DJ_Lae

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Huh.

I'm colourblind, I wonder if either of my daughters have an extra (albeit inactive) cone.

I'd imagine they see the world much the same way that a normal person sees it compared to me.
 

Kinitari

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Feb 10, 2008
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I knew they suspected some tetrachromats, but it's awesome that they confirmed it.

It doesn't serve any purpose and is only present in women so...no

It might serve a biological purpose? It might just serve a societal advantage, which makes her a better mating candidate. And mutations that suffuse the gene pool start with one specimen all the time. Further, a 'neutral' mutation is still evolution.
 

NoRéN

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Jul 6, 2009
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I have a confession. I too, am a tetrachromat.

My life is hell! So many colors! So many hues! Look at it all! the sky is blue, you say? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

oh, you're not a tetrachomat? I guess you don't know what I mean
or have a way to prove it
.
 

Angry Grimace

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Mar 16, 2007
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Purpose as in to increase fitness

I'm not sure you understand how evolution works.

Moreover, the ability to see additional colors certainly could increase fitness. To make up an example, its perfectly possible that a person who has a vastly larger palette of colors could perhaps see whether some plant or animal is poisonous by colors that are imperceptible to people with normal vision.
 

heyf00L

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To understand this, consider if you've ever been somewhere not lit with white light, like a dark room with a red light or maybe a parking lot with yellow light. Some things that are different colors in white light now appear indistinguishable. To a tetrachromat we're all living like that. Our eyes can only pick up certain differences, but with an extra cone you could see more differences in color that look the same to everyone else.
 

Casanova

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It might serve a biological purpose? It might just serve a societal advantage, which makes her a better mating candidate. And mutations that suffuse the gene pool start with one specimen all the time. Further, a 'neutral' mutation is still evolution.

Love these arguments. Lol

They're always so ill-informed and innacurate
 

Felix Lighter

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Reminds me of the book I'm currently reading, The Binding Knife.

The novel's universe has a light/color based magic system and there is a lot of time spent describing the way different people perceive color.
 
Jun 1, 2011
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I'm not sure you understand how evolution works.

Moreover, the ability to see additional colors certainly could increase fitness. To make up an example, its perfectly possible that a person who has a vastly larger palette of colors could perhaps see whether some plant or animal is poisonous by colors that are imperceptible to people with normal vision.

or differentiate between water melon gloss lipstick and regular melon gloss lipstick
 

Gotchaye

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I thought they couldn't realistically test for this.

Isn't it in principle pretty easy? The typical woman with four cones has the same three that almost everyone else has. The response of those cones to light at various wavelengths is well-understood. So you show the potential tetrachromat two different sources of light, where each is emitting a combination of different wavelengths such that both sources should produce identical responses in the three usual cones. If the woman can reliably tell the difference between the two sources, she's got an extra active cone.

Same way you'd demonstrate to a color-blind person that you can really perceive color differences. Put a red dot on one side of a card and "Red" on the other side, and put a green dot on one side of another card and "Green" on the other side. The color-blind person shuffles the cards and shows them to you dot-side up. A person with normal color vision can reliably find the card that says "Red" on the other side.
 

Thai

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Sep 29, 2005
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going buying decorations/clothes with this lady must be a nightmare.
 

ProfessorLobo

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I don't understand this, so does she have an extra primary color other then RGB? Does she see colors in between 0xFE0000 and 0xFF0000?
 

Angry Grimace

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Well I'm no biologist, but I was pretty confident about the argument - where did I go wrong?

I think he doesn't like the idea that a mutation without any immediately apparent purpose constitutes evolution.

Precisely, that is why they are so rare. It is not needed.

I don't know what you're talking about.
 

EloquentM

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Jul 1, 2011
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Isn't it in principle pretty easy? The typical woman with four cones has the same three that almost everyone else has. The response of those cones to light at various wavelengths is well-understood. So you show the potential tetrachromat two different sources of light, where each is emitting a combination of different wavelengths such that both sources should produce identical responses in the three usual cones. If the woman can reliably tell the difference between the two sources, she's got an extra active cone.
Yeah, that makes sense to me. I just read about this being particularly hard to test for. My memory isn't the best though.
 

Kinitari

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I don't understand this, so does she have an extra primary color other then RGB? Does she see colors in between 0xFE0000 and 0xFF0000?

I actually am not sure, but I think she sees into the non-visible colour spectrum?



I think he doesn't like the idea that a mutation without any immediately apparent purpose constitutes evolution.

I think I used to make that mistake, and people helped me out quite a bit to understand it better. I hope that's not what he's saying.
 
Jun 1, 2011
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Isn't it in principle pretty easy? The typical woman with four cones has the same three that almost everyone else has. The response of those cones to light at various wavelengths is well-understood. So you show the potential tetrachromat two different sources of light, where each is emitting a combination of different wavelengths such that both sources should produce identical responses in the three usual cones. If the woman can reliably tell the difference between the two sources, she's got an extra active cone.

Same way you'd demonstrate to a color-blind person that you can really perceive color differences. Put a red dot on one side of a card and "Red" on the other side, and put a green dot on one side of another card and "Green" on the other side. The color-blind person shuffles the cards and shows them to you dot-side up. A person with normal color vision can reliably find the card that says "Red" on the other side.

wonder if this is legit
 

Angry Grimace

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I actually am not sure, but I think she sees into the non-visible colour spectrum?

My assumption is that she would be able to see minute differences in wavelength that the average person would be unable to perceive; e.g. a number of wavelengths would be perceived as simply "red" by one person, but as a variety of different reds to this person, but I'm no biologist.

Being able to see infrared or something would be a way bigger deal, I think.
 
Sep 3, 2006
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My assumption is that she would be able to see minute differences in wavelength that the average person would be unable to perceive; e.g. a number of wavelengths would be perceived as simply "red" by one person, but as a variety of different reds to this person, but I'm no biologist.

This is the correct answer. She won't see any new colours, but more and finer differences.
 

Gotchaye

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This is the correct answer. She won't see any new colours, but more and finer differences.

I'm not sure what you mean by this. Go from two cones to three cones and you're suddenly seeing new colors (red and/or green). You're not seeing beyond the regular visible spectrum, but you're seeing more colors in that spectrum. We also see unique colors based on combinations of frequencies - like purple. What are these "differences" if not colors?
 

Anoregon

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But can she see why kids love cinnamon toast crunch?
 

Subitai

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I knew they suspected some tetrachromats, but it's awesome that they confirmed it.



It might serve a biological purpose? It might just serve a societal advantage, which makes her a better mating candidate. And mutations that suffuse the gene pool start with one specimen all the time. Further, a 'neutral' mutation is still evolution.
I was watching some nature documentary, and they were demonstrating how chimps with better color vision could identify which leaves on a specific species of tree were more ripe by their color, and so were more efficient in their calorie consumption. So, it then pointed out that it is likely our ancestors benefited from something similar with other plants.
 
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