When I was 12, I became part of the very select group of people who have had a life-changing experience at a fondue restaurant. After repeatedly grabbing my brother’s green fondue fork and eating his steak from the broth pot, I found myself accused of elder-sibling entitlement. But my father, who is colorblind, said I had done nothing wrong; like me, he was unable to see any difference between my brother’s green fork and my orange one. The Ishihara color-vision testhe administered on his computer later that night confirmed that I was among those few women with red-green colorblindness. He was excited that I saw “correctly” — which is to say, like him. Back then, the ability to understand his frame of reference was mostly limited to other people barred from becoming astronauts. Now there’s an app for it.
Colorblindness can be sort of a fun affliction. Sometimes I see my own private colors, and objects lose their prescribed meanings. Someone’s fashionable, Instagram-friendly sand-colored apartment might become, just for me, a garish baby-food green. The English scientist John Dalton described something similar in “Extraordinary Facts Relating to the Vision of Colours” (1794), the first known scientific study of anomalous color vision: He would often earnestly ask people whether a flower was blue or pink “but was generally considered to be in jest.”
I attended a liberal-arts college, so I know full well that philosophizing about the subjective experience of color is best done barefoot in a field while listening to Alice Coltrane music. Biologically, though, the mechanics are relatively straightforward. Humans are trichromats: We see color because three sets of cones inside the eye absorb light at different wavelengths, from red to blue. Colorblindness is, typically, a congenital weakness in one set or another. The cones in my eyes that are meant to detect long red wavelengths are abnormal; I may see red and orange, but they’re dim and green-tinted, their energy registering partly on the cones that detect medium-length green wavelengths. (For some colorblind people, the entire season of “autumn” must feel like an elaborate prank.) Those with no working cones in one group — dichromats — experience almost total blindness of that color. Red becomes black. Orange, now redless, becomes yellow.
Eight percent of men have abnormal color vision, but only half of 1 percent of women. My life with it has been fairly normal, save for the time I wore all purple on the Fourth of July. There are times, though — looking over a map, a painting, a color-coded spreadsheet — when seeing color in high fidelity is important. And this is how, while researching expensive color-correcting glasses, I came across Color Blind Pal, a free smartphone app that helps colorblind people navigate the world.
The app has three functions. In one, you can point your phone’s camera at an object and be told its color, either in crayon parlance (“seafoam green”) or more technical nomenclature (“cyan”). This is the mode that has helped me expand on my mostly black wardrobe: While shopping, I can point my phone at a jacket and learn whether it’s a hideous brownish orange or what I’m told is a fashionable brownish green.
A more complex mode allows colorblind people to shift the colors of the camera’s display through a process called daltonization, after the scientist who thought roses were blue. If the user can see a color faintly, says the app’s creator, Vincent Fiorentini, then “you just kind of amplify it,” like exposing a photograph longer; if the user is missing a receptor entirely, it will use the others to compensate. Point your camera at a map, and this process might make legible the subtleties in color used to depict topographical features. Perhaps, in a pinch, it could help a colorblind bomb-squad agent cut the right wire. The first time I used it, I pointed my phone at a red Supreme sticker, and its color felt so vibrantly red, unlike anything I had ever noticed before, that I began to cry.
The app’s most remarkable feature, though, is the one I technically have no use for: It’s a mode that shows noncolorblind people what it’s like to be colorblind.
This setting has its practical uses. Teachers can use it to check visual aids and ensure that the material won’t be lost on a colorblind student. Web developers can be sure the colors they choose for buttons and menu bars won’t be invisible to nearly a tenth of the population. Everyone can stop pointing at stuff and asking me, “O.K., so what color is that?”
But the feature’s most striking effect is the ability to inspire a strange kind of empathy. Last summer, I took a trip to the Southwest, a part of the country known for the bold reds of its adobe buildings, its mesas, its sunsets, its sands and cliffs, its everything. To me, it all seemed pretty much beige until, at the Grand Canyon, I opened the app and watched the brown monolith reveal delicate shades of pink, green, orange and tan, its layers displaying hundreds of millions of years of geological history. It was sublime: a rare glimpse of my place in the vast ecological timeline of a planet hurtling through empty space.
Then I switched to the setting that emulates my colorblindness and showed it to the man I was with. He looked at me with a mixture of perplexity and pity, as if to say: This? This is how you experience the world?
Originally published in The New York Times by Zoe Dubno on February 5, 2019