WTF is a Tetrachromat?

With the summer at it’s peak, we here at Awkward Human have taken time to admire some of the truly magnificent sights, sounds, and smells it has to offer us. Then we started to wonder, what if all these great colors we see aren’t the same colors other people see? What if other people can see more colors than us? That’s where Tetrachromats come in.

Most people are trichromats, which means they have three cone cells in their eye that can distinguish color. In the case of someone who is color-blind, they’re a dichromat only able to use two cones. For tetrachromats? They have four functioning cones. The difference between having two cones, three cones, or four cones can be so drastically different from one another that you might be missing out on hundreds of thousands of colors. To explain it more, I turn to Discover Magazine

Vision is complex, but the calculus of color is strangely simple: Each cone confers the ability to distinguish around a hundred shades, so the total number of combinations is at least 1003, or a million. Take one cone away—go from being what scientists call a trichromat to a dichromat—and the number of possible combinations drops a factor of 100, to 10,000.

So, in number terms, a tetrachromat may be able to see 100 million colors while someone with three cones is stuck at a measly 1 million.

Who are tetrachromats? For the most part, tetrachromats have been women who are daughters of or mothers of a color-blind man. This condition was first discovered in 1948 during a study of color-blind men. The scientist who ran the study, HL De Vries, happened to test one of the daughters of a color-blind subject and noticed that she was seeing color differently than others. Knowing color blindness only affected men in her family and not women, he began to troubleshoot why this was happening. The answer was the father’s mutant cone. While humans are born with three cones, color blindness happens when one of the cones is mutated or non-functioning. Mothers and daughters of color-blind men have four cones–three regular and the extra mutated cone.

Rainbow Gully, Mission Hills, SD

Artwork by Concetta Antico, a tetrachromat


New studies have been done to try and find more tetrachromats. In a test with 25 female tetrachromats, one woman was able to answer every question of hue and color correctly and is now deemed as one of the 1% of Earth’s population to have four functioning cones. Concetta Antico, the female subject in question, now lives and works as an artist and art instructor. 

Though it’s believed that 1% of the population exist as tetrachromats, it’s not necessarily obvious to those that have it. Even with a fourth cone, tetrachromats may not have excellent color perception because they haven’t trained their brains to experience color differently than anyone else. For Concetta Antico, who started painting as a young child, she was able to learn and appreciate color at a young age while her brain was still growing and forming. That gave her the ultimate advantage of being able to use her tetrachromatic gift and see the world more beautifully. 

Don’t feel jealous though. According to scientist Kimberly Jameson, the biggest difference in color perception comes between those of us with three functioning cones and those of us who are color blind and only have two functioning cones. If you’re colorblind, there still may be options for you! And for those of us who are like me, having a father with color blindness and who also have four cones, get to work on how you perceive color–you might be one of the lucky few like Antico who can appreciate all the colors of our world.

Image courtesy of Concetta Antico