Aesthetic Lighting Help

Tetrachromatic Vision

Photo by Magda Ehlers on

Each month, I deliver an educational lecture to hundreds of talented designers and architects from across the United States and Canada. A recent event centered on the color of light, a subject that has leapfrogged in importance exponentially since the introduction of LED and which I have spent a fair amount of time studying. In the Q&A section, for the first time, in a long time, I was stumped by a question. One of the designers wanted to know what I understood about those with tetrachromatic vision. Like a teenage boy being asked to define onomatopoeia and differentiate between a gerund and a noun, I mumbled, “Ahhh, I don’t know.”

Days after my Rick Perry, “Duhhh?” moment, a friend, who knows of and understands my interest in all things color, sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal discussing the research of tetrachromatic sight. (The Rare Gift of Seeing Extra Color – Jackie Higgins, February 22, 2022) The world was telling me it is time for some additional study.

Human color perception is delivered through tri-stimulus values. In other words, we have three photoreceptors in our eyes, one with peak sensitivity for blue, one with more highly refined sensitive to green and the third with heightened sensitivity for red. Images enter our eyes, the colors are separated into three “buckets” (R,G&B) and the information is sent to our brains for processing the understanding of the color of an object. (If you’re an ophthalmologist reading this, I apologize for that simplistic explanation!) If a person has some sort of color-blindness, one, or more of those photoreceptors does not work properly. If a person has tetrachromatic vision, they have a fourth photoreceptor. This fourth receptor allows that person to perceive higher gradations of color.

What Does Tetrachromatic Vision Do?

Explaining this is akin to developing an orthographic projection of an M. C. Escher drawing. How do we understand a higher level of color perception, when we, or the researchers can never experience it?

Imagine two paint samples. The average person sees the same color. In his research on color perception at Kodak, David MacAdams found that 90% of the population had average color comprehension, but about 10% had some level of elevated ability. They are able to hone in on the nuances and discern a difference. Those folks are likely my audience of designers, but also printers, photographers, artists, paint store specialists and even a few like MacAdams, a Physicists and Color Scientists. To understand persons with tetrachromatic vision, they see multiples of differences even in color samples perceived to be the same, by the rarified 10%.

Hourly and salaried wage-earners are the 90%, the 10% with better color perception are millionaires and those with tetrachromatic vison are the multi-billionaires of the world. Just a few, with overabundant powers.

So How Do We Respond to These Talents?

Unless the designer is equally gifted, it is near impossible to design to the demands of a tetrachromatic client. From comments provide by those with tetrachromatic vision, they also have no way of perceiving a life of color in any other way. How does one understand what one does not possess?

Recruiting people with tetrachromatic vision into the field of LED technology would be very helpful. Their superior color perception could help in the development of better products. If it passes muster with them, the rest of us will be well served with lighting of perfect quality. Wage-earners, millionaires or billionaires will all have great light. That egalitarian color solution sounds pretty good to me!

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