I stood in the center of Times Square. Fiery orange flames and velvet purple sunsets five stories tall promised that I could stay Forever 21. Along with Vegas and Versailles, few spots in the world depend so heavily on the seductive power of colors. If I was going to see full color for the first time in my life, this was the spot to do it. I am colorblind, but in the last few years new sunglasses have promised to open me up to the world of color.
There is an array to choose from. The Oxy-Iso colorblindness correction medical glasses allow me to pass the Ishihara, one of the most common tests for colorblindness. But the glasses work by changing the brightness of confusing colors, not by correcting them.
I had my sights on the $379 EnChroma Cx Gamma sunglasses, which come in a box that says Color for the Colorblind. They were designed with 100 micro-coatings to heighten color perception.
A 53-year-old ex-marine told me he broke down in tears when he saw the red in a brick building for the first time using EnChroma glasses. Another man said he was so overwhelmed by colors that he nearly got in an accident on his way home. “We’ll give the glasses to someone and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve never seen that color before,’” said a spokesman for EnChroma. “And we’ll tell them that the color is teal. And then they go around calling every new color that they see teal.”
I had brought along my friend to witness my own trial. I needed someone to verify all the new colors. I took the glasses out of their silvery box and put them on.
Colorblindness is just the latest problem that scientists have tried to solve with a technical fix. They’ve modified the DNA of plants such as corn to resist pests and fight disease, and now are building electronic bees to pollinate them. Drugs let antsy children concentrate in class and help depressed adults feel balanced. Cochlear implants help the deaf hear, and mechanical limbs help athletes win Olympic medals.
It is no surprise, then, that scientists have made breakthroughs with colorblindness, which is the most common congenital disorder in humans: More than 15 million people in the U.S. and over 300 million worldwide don’t see normal colors. Most are men who inherit it from their mothers’ fathers.
“At least grandpa wasn’t bald,” my mom tells me.
Despite how common this condition is, most people don’t understand it. The colorblind are almost all actually red-green colorblind, but that doesn’t mean they can’t see red and green. The colorblind can see the colors when they’re vivid, but make mistakes when they’re faint. And because so many colors such as pink or purple contain just a little bit of red or green, mistakes are common.
It’s treated as a joke, even among the celebrity colorblind. Didn’t you know Mark Zuckerberg made Facebook blue because it’s the easiest color for him to see? If Van Gogh had normal color vision, would his paintings have looked more or less intense? Is defective vision the reason why Bill Clinton has trouble seeing stains? Colorblind men clash ties when they dress, buy unripe bananas for breakfast, and mix up subway lines on their way to work. They get confused by line graphs during meetings, and try to push through the red “occupied” signs on bathroom doors. To a colorblind man, the red lipstick you’re wearing might not be that impressive, but neither will your blemishes.
Colorblindness can have serious consequences. The colorblind are slower to respond to brake lights and have trouble telling if their steak is cooked. They’re usually not allowed to become policeman, or firemen, or pilots, or electricians.
According to Angel Perez, a Helen Keller Fellow at the University of Alabama, colorblindness contributed to a plane crash in 2000 in Tallahassee, Florida. “One of the problems was the pilot’s inability to distinguish between the landing lights, so he actually ran the plane into the ground,” Perez said. “When you see the picture of the crash it’s devastating.” Only 11 states require that children be tested. “We have a lot of kids who grow up not knowing they have a color-vision deficiency,” Perez said. “They are disproportionately labeled with learning disabilities.”
Advocates for services to the colorblind such as Perez refer to it as “color-vision deficiency” and say that most of the harm could be avoided. Textbook publishers could sell colorblind-friendly books; the colors of runway lights could be changed from red to blue. “There are places in Australia where they’re developing a new traffic light. Instead of just using colors, they’re having them done in shapes so people can drive without causing an accident,” Perez said.
Kathryn Albany-Ward, an advocate for the colorblind in the U.K., said “the issue has been totally swept under the carpet.” Color-vision deficiency was specifically excluded from the Equality Act of 2010. Marks and Spencer’s told her they wouldn’t change their packaging unless the law forced them to. But some companies that serve primarily men have started to take notice: You can now blow up evil aliens in video games such as Borderlands 2 in regular and colorblind mode. In Portugal, Miguel Neiva licenses a code made up of dots and lines that allows the colorblind to read subway maps. He’s been selling his system to libraries and crayon makers. “It’s a tool that allows them to achieve social integration without problems or shame,” he said during a recent TED talk.
Karen Levine wrote a book about colorblindness for kids after she took her son to be tested and the doctor didn’t have any advice. “It doesn’t even matter,” he told her. She found the same indifference from teachers, so she tested all the kids in the district herself. Rather than trying to fix her son like a broken piece of machinery, she believes the world just needs to treat him fairly. The cure to colorblindness for Levine is social, not technological.
She told me a story of how her son’s teacher had looked at his drawing of a rainbow and told him the colors were all wrong. “No,” her son had replied. “I’m colorblind.” Instead of giving him a bad grade, the teacher helped him put the markers in order. According to Levine’s vision, that’s how the world would work if people were more informed.
T.J. Waggoner, a scientist who happens to be colorblind, agrees. Waggoner wore a brown shirt out to dinner with Levine and me because, he said, “It’s a color I know.” He can’t see parking spaces and has been falsely accused of cheating on chemistry exams. But when I offered to let him try on my EnChroma glasses, he declined. He doesn’t think he’s at a disadvantage and he doesn’t think the glasses really cure colorblindness.
“For that,” he said. “We have to wait for the squirrel monkeys.”
Jay Neitz cured colorblindness five years ago.
Neitz, a professor at the University of Washington, tested two squirrel monkeys every day for a year and a half, confirming their colorblindness before experimenting on them.
Then Neitz injected their retinas with a virus that contained the genetic code for the red pigment found in human eyes. The monkeys, called Sam and Dalton—John Dalton was the first scientist to publish a paper on colorblindness in 1798—didn’t show any improvement at first. Five months later, they started passing their color-vision tests. Neitz checked the data over and over again. He wanted to demonstrate that the monkeys’ ability to pass the test wasn’t a trick they had learned, but a faculty they had acquired. Finally he opened a bottle of champagne with his wife and lab partner, Maureen.
“But there is still a lot of skepticism,” said Neitz. “So if you did it in a person and could talk to them, it would be an opportunity to really understand exactly the effect it has had on people’s vision.”
Now Neitz is working on a treatment for humans that won’t involve shoving a needle into the retina. “I mean, there are other ways,” he said. “We could go to third-world countries and do experiments away from regulations in the United States. But our goal is basically to get FDA approval.” In one case, Neitz told me, he met a colorblind medic in Afghanistan who was afraid of making a mistake on a colored poison test. “He said, ‘I know that [the retina injection] is not approved right now. But I would come to your laboratory at night and you could give me the shot, and we wouldn’t tell anyone.’” Neitz turned down the medic.
I asked him what curing colorblindness would mean to him. “If people said I now see 100 times more colors than before, and they liked it, I would feel like I would have changed the world in a small way,” said Neitz.
But what if, after 34 years of work, he solves the problem and then no one wanted it? Levine, for one, said she wouldn’t want her son to get the shot in the eye.
“Every mother has this strong human desire to believe that just because you’re missing something in one place, you’re not missing it,” Neitz said, “but there is some compensating advantage.”
I asked him about the studies that show colorblind people can see through camouflage and recognize certain shades of khaki that normal people miss. That’s not enough, Neitz said. In his experience people always choose color. “As soon as the color TVs came out everyone went to color TVs. People don’t want black-and-white photographs. They don’t go to see a black-and-white film unless it’s the movie Nebraska, and then it’s always some sort of art film.”
What if something goes wrong with the genetics, I asked him? “People do get worried that if you mess with this kind of stuff, you could turn people into zombies. That would be an extremely bad side effect,” Neitz said wryly.
But he dismissed these apocalyptic fears because he injects the DNA through a virus that can’t reproduce and can only travel to the eye and be activated there.
Then I asked Neitz about the fourth cone.
Most people have three types of receptor cones in their retinas—red, green, and blue. A small percentage of women have a non-functioning fourth type. If it worked, they could see 100 million colors instead of the 1 million most people see. (Colorblind people usually see between 10,000 and 100,000.) A recent study in England found one woman whose fourth cone was active; she could see hues no other known human can.
I asked: “Within the next 20 years do you think we’ll have moved on from curing colorblindness to injecting a fourth cone so we can see even more colors?”
“Yes, I think so,” said Neitz. “I have to be a little bit careful because there are people who are hostile to that. Even my own dad says, 'I don’t think you should be messing around with genes.' Personally, if you could give yourself 100 times more colors, and all the people that are the normal would have 1 percent of the color vision that you do, who wouldn’t want that?”
I saw a flash of red when I put the glasses on.
The orange background in the Glee billboard suddenly looked electric and rich. Unlike a regular orange, which fades the more you look at it, this orange felt endless. But I was suspicious. Maybe I saw it because I wanted to see it, not because it looked different. So rather than searching for particular colors, I let my attention float freely. A policeman’s reflective yellow vest jumped out at me. “It’s sort of like in Schindler’s List,” I explained to my friend, referencing the black-and-white movie that used color only on one girl’s sweater. “It’s, like, there’s all of Times Square and then there’s that yellow vest that’s, like—pop.”
But then I remembered that yellow isn’t a color I have trouble with. I’m red-green colorblind.
I wanted the glasses to be spectacular, but they mostly felt ordinary: They just accentuated the difference between the really bright billboards and the boring hues of streets and clothing. I let my friend try the glasses on.
“Oh my god. Her jacket down there,” he said, pointing to a pedestrian. “It takes what is arguably red that is faded and makes it look like it’s newly bought bright red, fresh-off-the-shelf,” he said. “Her pants look like the most beautiful glowing peach.”
I asked for the glasses back. Not only did they not have as dramatic an effect as I was hoping for, but my friend saw colors through the glasses better than I did. As we left, I pointed to the green on a Subway restaurant sign that looked greener than ever. “No,” he told me. “That’s yellow.”
They weren’t working for me and I wanted answers, so I called up the CEO of EnChroma.
Being colorblind wasn't always seen as a problem that needed fixing. Most of our evolutionary ancestors were red-green colorblind and most animals today, such as dogs and horses, remain so. The eye’s third, color-sensitive red cone is a relatively new adaptation.
Our primate ancestors who could see that the bananas across the river were ripe had an advantage. Those who couldn’t see—ripe bananas or otherwise—died off.
Seeing red has extra advantage for humans, according to the evolutionary biologist Mark Changizi. Humans are the only primates whose faces are hairless and exposed, which helps us read each other’s emotional cues. When we’re mad or embarrassed, our faces turn red. And it also helps us to spot rashes, ear infections sunburns and a host of other ailments that colorblind doctors sometimes miss.
In places like Fiji, the rate of colorblindness is close to zero because seeing color has been so important that those who didn’t have it died off. African black men have only developed half the frequency of colorblindness as Caucasian men.
Seeing colors doesn’t matter as much in the grayer climes of agriculture, much less the industrialized world. Men can now buy ripe bananas in a supermarket. Because the mutation for colorblindness is so frequent—it’s the most common congenital disorder in humans, even among females—the number of colorblind people in the world keeps rising. In other words, colorblindness could become the new normal in the distant future.
I met Tony Dykes, the CEO of EnChroma, in Times Square on a gray, rainy day, our eyes hidden behind his glasses’ 100 reflective coatings.
I wondered whether Dykes’ vision of the future was any less radical than Neitz’s. Both wanted colors to explode through our consciousness, grabbing our attention in ways never experienced before. Both of them wanted the pulsating techno-color of Times Square to follow us everywhere. I described to Dykes what I saw through the glasses: deeper oranges, crisper brake lights on cars, and fluorescent yellows that popped. I asked him if that is what a normal person sees.
Dykes, a former lawyer and an able salesman, answered quickly. “It’s not something where it’s immediate,” he said. “You’re just getting the information for the first time.”
Was there any objective way, then, to judge whether the glasses were really working? “We also do a lot of qualitative testing with people, at this point thousands of people, so we are quite confident that they work,” Dykes said.
Maybe the glasses were working. Maybe exchanging the colors I was accustomed to for real colors just wasn’t as great an experience as I’d been expecting. Dykes asked if I could tell the difference between the gray shoelaces and the pink “N” on the side of my sneakers. “The ‘N’ is shiny,” I said. “So I don’t know if I can tell they’re different by the colors or because of the iridescence.”
Although I’d never confused my shoelace with my shoe before, I realized then that, until he had told me, I didn’t know the “N” was pink.
Over the following weeks I wore my glasses every chance I got. I stopped at street vendors to gaze at satin-red tulips on olive-green stems. During smoke breaks my friends asked me whether the car that passed by looked persimmon or plum.
As I ran through the park one afternoon, it started to rain. The drops smeared the lenses so I couldn’t see the ashen clouds in the sky. It was a day indistinguishable from most of the colorless days of my childhood in Seattle, a city which now seemed terribly apt to have grown up in.
I got an email that day from Professor Neitz. The DNA results of the saliva sample I sent him had been confirmed: I am totally lacking red pigments. This is considered to be the worst of the 13 types of colorblindness. I see 990,000 fewer colors than normal people. This could explain why the glasses didn’t work: I didn’t see enough colors for the glasses to effectively enhance them.
“Ten thousand is still a lot of colors,” he consoled me. “However, you would be an excellent candidate for gene therapy if it was ever cleared for humans. Then you could really find out what you are missing.”
This piece first appeared in 219 Magazine.