Ever Wondered why your wife take so much of time to choose a single saree and complains about color which you can’t even see? Read the post below to understand

Posted: September 30, 2012 in Color, Color vision and perception
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All this talk about stereotypes can get you thinking. Perhaps some stereotypes reflect actual differences. Take color vision, for example: men often refer to themselves as “color-impaired,” letting the women in their lives make home design decisions and even asking them to match clothing for them. Maybe they’re just behaving in accordance with traditional stereotypes … but maybe there’s something more to it.

In the 1980s, vision researchers began to find some real physical differences between the eyes of many women and those of most men. “Normal” color vision is possible because we have three different types of cone cells in our eyes, each of which responds to a different wavelength of light. The process is basically the reverse of how a TV set or computer monitor works: on a TV, there are three different colored dots—red, green, and blue—and the millions of “colors” we see are based on mixtures of different proportions of those colors. In the eye, cone cells can have three different photopigments. These are usually generalized as red, green, and blue, but their actual values are closer to yellowish green, green, and bluish violet. To avoid confusion, psychologists typically refer to them to long-, medium, and short-wavelength sensitive cones. Supposing we’re looking at a yellowish-green thing, the long-wavelength cones are stimulated the most, the medium-wavelength cones are stimulated a bit, and the short-wavelength cones are not stimulated at all, and the appropriate signal is sent along the optic nerve to the brain, which then recognizes the color as “yellowish-green.”
What the researchers were finding when they actually looked at the structure of the eye is that many women—perhaps over fifty percent—possessed a fourth photopigment. Was this merely a genetic anomaly? Would the brain even be able to process this fourth input? The early research suggested that it would not. Women were no better at determining whether two very similar color patches were actually the same. They were only slightly better than men at detecting subtle spots of red light, a fact researchers attributed to individual difference.

However, Kimberly Jameson, Susan Highnote, and Linda Wasserman were not convinced by this evidence. Five- and six-year-old girls are better at naming colors than boys, and grown men are not as good at color-naming compared to women. They felt the existing measures of color sensitivity and color-matching did not capture all the differences between men and women, and devised a new experiment that they felt was more representative of real-world vision.

It’s quite difficult to examine an eye to determine if it has the fourth photopigment—the process generally involves removing the eye itself. Jameson and her colleagues might have had just a bit of difficulty recruiting volunteers to participate in an experiment requiring such extreme measures, so instead they used a genetic test to determine how many different photopigments participants were likely to possess (they estimate this process to be about 90 percent accurate—biologists will recognize this as the genotype versus phenotype problem). Of 64 participants in the study, 23 were women with 4 photopigments, 15 were women with 3 photopigments, 22 were men with 3 photopigments, and 4 were men with 2 photopigments (this is commonly called “color-blindness,” but most people with 2 photopigments can still distinguish between many colors).

Next, participants viewed a spectrum projected on a lucite window covered with tracing paper. Over the next hour and a half, they performed an array of tasks, including marking the edges of the visible rainbow, marking the locations of the “best example” of each of the major colors, and marking the edges of each “band” of color in the rainbow. Between each task, a camera flash was set off to mask the previous spectrum example, and the experimenter mounted a new sheet of tracing paper on the panel.

The most compelling results came from the number of spectral bands task:


Type of participant
Average number of spectral bands
Number of participants
Four-pigment females
Three-pigment females
Three-pigment males and females
Two-pigment males

Four-pigment females perceived significantly more bands of color than both three-pigment males and females. Further, three-pigment males and females are statistically indistinguishable, suggesting that the result is not due to some cultural difference between men and women.

So why were others unable to find significant results in a color-matching task when we see such dramatic results here? Jameson et al. suggest that there may be two (or more) different modes of seeing color, each processed differently in the brain. The brain may use the data from all four photopigments for some processes, but not for others. But this is still supposition. What’s clear from this study is that the stereotype of women being better with color may reflect real differences between men and women.

Jameson, K. A., Highnote, S. M., & Wasserman, L. M. (2001). Richer color experience in observers with multiple opsin genes. Psychonomic bulletin and review, 8, 244-261.

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