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Monkey sees red, man to see ultraviolet

July 19, 2012

And after another gap (this time of three weeks!) I have again returned. (My excuse: I was traveling, and now am back home.)

I expect to have numerous posts in the next few weeks as I procrastinate on all the things I need to be doing, but I’ll start off with some links I’d meant to post in the last three weeks but didn’t get around to. (I’d still been reading stuff online, just not writing.) I’ll be doing one per post, since none of them seem related enough to justify combination.


Everyone has always wondered whether or not other people see the “same” colors as they do. Turns out, Science Says ™, maybe they don’t:

One person’s red might be another person’s blue and vice versa, the scientists said. You might really see blood as the color someone else calls blue, and the sky as someone else’s red. But our individual perceptions don’t affect the way the color of blood, or that of the sky, make us feel.
The best thing about this: they’re basing this on an experiment where they injected viruses into monkey eyeballs that turned some of their blue-yellow cones into gave them red-greens, and the monkeys were able to use them. Suddenly the monkeys could distinguish red from green, when before they couldn’t.

The scientists have since been investigating whether the same gene therapy technique could be used to cure red-green color blindness in humans, which affects 1 percent of American men. The work also suggests humans could one day be given a fourth kind of cone cell, such as the UV-sensitive cone found in some birds, potentially allowing us to see more colors.

What would we see if we were suddenly given UV-sensitive cones? No one knows. I would love to give such eyes to a painter or a poet and see how he described the experience.

Of course, some writers have already attempted such descriptions. For me, the archetypal instance is H.P. Lovecraft’s purple (ultraviolet?) prose in The Colour Out of Space. Would we see UV light as a “riot of luminous amorphousness, [an] alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison”? As

a thousand tiny points of faint and unhallowed radiance, tipping each bough like the fire of St. Elmo or the flames that come down on the apostles’ heads at Pentecost. It was a monstrous constellation of unnatural light, like a glutted swarm of corpse-fed fireflies dancing hellish sarabands over an accursed marsh, and its colour was that same nameless intrusion which Ammi had come to recognize and dread. All the while the shaft of phosphorescence from the well was getting brighter and brighter, bringing to the minds of the huddled men, a sense of doom and abnormality which far outraced any image their conscious minds could form. It was no longer shining out; it was pouring out; and as the shapeless stream of unplaceable colour left the well it seemed to flow directly into the sky.

…probably not. The effect of this passage depends on the fact that we can’t even make sense of what it would be like to see something outside of the “visible spectrum.” Wittgenstein has a book about this sort of thing, and I seriously doubt this scientific discovery could have much of an effect on the validity of Wittgenstein’s observations. And even if we can expand the visible spectrum, the idea of a color outside of it would still be nonsense, and ripe for transformation into metaphor.

This experiment probably doesn’t answer that question we all think about when we’re children about what colors other people see. Still, it’s an interesting result.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 20, 2012 8:00 am

    What’s the word for when two bloggers discuss the same topic in the same week? (

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