colour scheme

Odd eye: Why human vision is tuned to distinguishing the colours red and green

Humans indicate emotions through colour changes to their faces relating to blood flow. Is this behind the evolution of our vision?

Most mammals rely on scent rather than sight. Look at a dog’s eyes, for example: they are usually on the sides of its face, not close together and forward-facing like ours. Having eyes on the side is good for creating a broad field of vision, but bad for depth perception and accurately judging distances in front. Instead of having good vision, dogs, horses, mice, antelope – in fact, most mammals generally – have long damp snouts that they use to sniff things with. It is we humans, and apes and monkeys, who are different. And, as we will see, there is something particularly unusual about our vision that requires an explanation.

Over time, perhaps as primates came to occupy more diurnal niches with lots of light to see, we somehow evolved to be less reliant on smell and more reliant on vision. We lost our wet noses and snouts, our eyes moved to the front of our faces, and closer together, which improved our ability to judge distances (developing improved stereoscopy, or binocular vision). In addition, Old World monkeys and apes (called catarrhines) evolved trichromacy: red-, green- and blue-colour vision. Most other mammals have two different types of colour photoreceptors (cones) in their eyes, but the catarrhine ancestor experienced a gene duplication, which created three different genes for colour vision. Each of these now codes for a photoreceptor that can detect different wavelengths of light: one at short wavelengths (blue), one at medium wavelengths (green), and one at long wavelengths (red). And so the story goes our ancestors evolved forward-facing eyes and trichromatic colour vision – and we have never looked back.

Figure 1. The spectral sensitivities of the colour cones of a honeybee. Reproduced based on Osorio & Vorobyev, 2005.
Figure 1. The spectral sensitivities of the colour cones of a honeybee. Reproduced based on Osorio & Vorobyev, 2005.
Figure 2. The spectral sensitivities of the colour sensors of a digital camera. Reproduced based on original data of the author’s.
Figure 2. The spectral sensitivities of the colour sensors of a digital camera. Reproduced based on original data of the author’s.

Colour vision works by capturing light at multiple different wavelengths, and then comparing between them to determine the wavelengths being reflected from an object (its colour). A blue colour will strongly stimulate a receptor at short wavelengths, and weakly stimulate a receptor at long wavelengths, while a red colour would do the opposite. By comparing between the relative stimulation of those shortwave (blue) and longwave (red) receptors, we are able to distinguish those colours.

In order to best capture different wavelengths of light, cones should be evenly spaced across the spectrum of light visible to humans, which is about 400nm-700nm. When we look at the cone spacing of the bumblebee (Figure 1), which is also trichromatic, we can see that even spacing is indeed the case. Similarly, digital cameras’ sensors (Figure 2) need to be nicely spaced out to capture colours. This even cone/sensor spacing gives a good spectral coverage of the available wavelengths of light, and excellent chromatic coverage. But this is not exactly how our own vision works.

Figure 3. The spectral sensitivities of the colour cones of a human. Reproduced based on Osorio & Vorobyev, 2005
Figure 3. The spectral sensitivities of the colour cones of a human. Reproduced based on Osorio & Vorobyev, 2005

How human vision works

Our own vision does not have this even spectral spacing (Figure 3). In humans and other catarrhines, the red and green cones largely overlap. This means that we prioritise distinguishing a few types of colours really well – specifically, red and green – at the expense of being able to see as many colours as we possibly might. This is peculiar. Why do we prioritise differentiating red from green?

Several explanations have been proposed. Perhaps the simplest is that this is an example of what biologists call evolutionary constraint. The gene that encodes for our green receptor, and the gene that encodes for our red receptor, evolved via a gene duplication. It is likely that they would have originally been almost identical in their sensitivities, and perhaps there has just not been enough time, or enough evolutionary selection, for them to become different.

Another explanation emphasises the evolutionary advantages of a close red-green cone arrangement. Since it makes us particularly good at distinguishing between greenish to reddish colours – and between different shades of pinks and reds – then we might be better at identifying ripening fruits, which typically change from green to red and orange colours as they ripen. There is an abundance of evidence that this effect is real, and marked. Trichromatic humans are much better at picking out ripening fruit from green foliage than dichromatic humans (usually so-called red-green colourblind individuals). More importantly, normal trichromatic humans are much better at this task than individuals experimentally given simulated even-spaced trichromacy. In New World monkeys, where some individuals are trichromatic and some dichromatic, trichromats detect ripening fruit much quicker than dichromats, and without sniffing it to the same extent. As fruit is a critical part of the diet of many primates, fruit-detection is a plausible selection pressure, not just for the evolution of trichromacy generally, but also for our specific, unusual form of trichromacy.

A final explanation relates to social signalling. Many primate species use reddish colours, such as the bright red nose of the mandrill and the red chest patch of the gelada, in social communication. Similarly, humans indicate emotions through colour changes to our faces that relate to blood flow, being paler when we feel sick or worried, blushing when we are embarrassed, and so on. Perhaps detection of such cues and signals might be involved in the evolution of our unusual cone spacing?

Recently, my colleagues and I tested this hypothesis experimentally. We took images of the faces of rhesus monkey females, which redden when females are interested in mating. We prepared experiments in which human observers saw pairs of images of the same female, one when she was interested in mating, and one when she was not. Participants were asked to choose the mating face, but we altered how faces appeared to those participants. In some trials, human observers saw the original images, but in other trials they saw the images with a colour transformation, which mimicked what an observer would see with a different visual system.

By comparing multiple types of trichromacy and dichromacy in this way, we found that human observers performed best at this task when they saw with normal human trichromatic vision – and they performed much better with their regular vision than with trichromacy with even cone spacing (that is, without red-green cone overlap). Our results were consistent with the social signalling hypothesis: the human visual system is the best of those tested at detecting social information from the faces of other primates.

However, we tested only a necessary condition of the hypothesis, that our colour vision is better at this task than other possible vision types we might design. It might be that it is the signals themselves that evolved to exploit the wavelengths that our eyes were already sensitive to, rather than the other way round. It is also possible that multiple explanations are involved. One or more factors might be related to the origin of our cone spacing (for example, fruit-eating), while other factors might be related to the evolutionary maintenance of that spacing once it had evolved (for example, social signalling).

It is still not known exactly why humans have such strange colour vision. It could be due to foraging, social signalling, evolutionary constraint – or some other explanation. However, there are many tools to investigate the question, such as genetic sequencing of an individual’s colour vision, experimental simulation of different colour vision types combined with behavioural performance testing, and observations of wild primates that see different colours. There is something strange about the way we see colours. We have prioritised distinguishing a few types of colours really well, at the expense of being able to see as many colours as we possibly might. One day, we hope to know why.

This article first appeared on Aeon.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.