18th May 2021
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What is a Tetrachromat? How do you see Colour?

By Carol Dance

Tetrachromacy is the condition of possessing four independent channels for conveying colour information, or possessing four types of cone cell in the eye. Each cone is triggered by different wavelengths of light. About one in 10,000 women are tetrachromats, and I am one of them.

It simply means I see more of the colour spectrum’s variations than trichromats. There is a finite colour spectrum, but an infinite number of variations within the spectrum.

A tetrachromat sees more of the variations because they have four colour receptors. Trichromats have three colour receptors and colour-blind people have two.

Vermilion, puce, cerulean, periwinkle, chartreuse, purple and the thousands of other colours can be seen by most people.

To confirm that I was a tetrachromat, I went to the School of Optometry at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The examiner provided me with various colour charts and palettes. I worked my way through a couple of hours of identifying colour variations, then the examiner asked if my son is colour blind. He is. That fact confirmed that I was highly likely a tetrachromat.

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Ask your local geneticist to explain about the gene for a cone I didn’t pass on to my son and kept for myself, because I have never understood that part! In fact, trying to sort out fact from myth and magic about tetrachromacy is quite difficult to do online. There’s a lot of rubbish spread around about the condition. And don’t rely on the tetrachromat colour tests you can find on the internet. They are definitely not reliable.

At first, I was chuffed to have this special colour vision. But, being an artist, I then realised people don’t see my paintings the way I see them.

And it put me off painting! And it is rather annoying to point out a rainbow that nobody else sees. What else do I see others don’t? Why does someone say a wall is grey when I think it is a shade of green.

So, my women readers, if you point out rainbows that nobody else sees, don’t worry. You could have the fourth colour receptor. Just enjoy the extra colour. I might even start painting again after I get over the shock of being a tetrachromat.


Also by Carol:

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