Rafael Benitez has not exactly been the most popular appointment as Chelsea Manager. I can understand the Chelsea fans’ disappointment. I would be distraught if Benitez was brought in to head up the club I support. However, fair’s fair. This week Benitez was criticised by Chelsea fans for wearing a red tie rather than a blue one; red being the colour of Liverpool football club where Benitez used to manage and is perhaps suspected of still having loyal ties. However, as you can see from the photograph, he was clearing wearing an orange tie not a red one. What does this mean? Are Chelsea fans colour blind? All of them? Have a we discovered a new phenomenon? If anyone would like to fund research into colour vision of football fans please get in touch.
Our colour vision results from the fact that our eyes contain three types of light-sensitive cells or cones that have different wavelength sensitivity. Some people (called anomalous trichromats) are colour blind and this is usually because one of their cones is mutated and has a different wavelength sensitivity compared with those in so-called normal observers. Colour-blind is a misnomer really because anomalous trichromats can still see colour; they just have less ability to discriminate between colours than normals. Some people are missing one of the cone classes altogether and are referred to as dichromats; they have even poorer colour discrimination but can still see colour. Only monochromats are really colour blind and they are extremely rare.
For a long time I have known that some females have four cones classes (this makes them tetrachromats). Dr Gabriele Jordan, a researcher at the Institute of Neuroscience (Newcastle University) has spent the last 20 years working on human colour vision. She has discovered that tetrachromatic females exist and that although this gives them the potential for colour discrimination much better than normal trichromats in practice most have normal colour discrimination. However, in a recent report she has found a tetrachromat who really does have enhanced colour discrimination. This is really exciting news!
The report in the Daily Mail suggest that a functional tetrachromat could be able to see 99 million more hues than the average person. Personally I am skeptical of this claim even if, as I suspect, it means 99 million more hues than the average person. The number of colours that an average person can see is debatable but I think may be about 10 million (see my previous blog post).
Human colour vision under normal lighting levels is mediated by three cones (light-sensitive cells) in the retina. Each class of cone has peak sensitivity at a different wavelength and thus the cones are known as L (long-wavelength sensitive), M (medium-wavelength sensitive) and S (short-wavelength sensitive) cones or (sometimes) as red, green and blue cones. Both colour and luminance are captured by the same cone mechanism. The L and M cone responses are combined to give luminance and various cone responses are compared to give rise to hue and chroma. Interestingly, the distribution of L, M and S cones in the retina is not uniform but is random.
A recent paper – http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0008992 – by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine (St Louis, USA) reveals that chickens have five types of cone. Interestingly, one of these types of cones (so-called double cones) seems to encode luminance, whereas the other four cones (red, green, blue and violet) give rise to tetrachromatic vision. The cones are very regulary spaced in the retina.
The spacing of cones in the human retina may result from a compromise – the same cones need to encode colour and luminance. The avian colour vision system seems to be more sophisticated. One can only wonder at what benefit was bestowed in avians by separating the processing of colour and luminance information.