Monday, October 13, 2014

Discovering Color at Age 57

I've been seeing these sunsets for 35 years... but not really.
Severely color-blind from birth, in the last few weeks I have gained the ability to see more (by no means all) colors.  I can't imagine that my writing skills are up to this task, but I feel the need to try to explain what it has been like.

I've always been interested in the possibility of treating my color-blindness, and had tried a half-dozen technologies before.  Some, like the high-tech Enchroma lenses, simply didn't do very much for me, probably because my color blindness is too severe.  Others, using tinted glassses, only worked a little bit, and only on the brightest of sunny days; I coudn't wear them in low light.  And some required contact lenses, to which I could never adjust.  In any case, all such technologies must be used nearly full time for several weeks before the brain rewires itself, and I never got that far.

Recently, however, the good folks at Harrisville Eye Care set me up with a pair of glasses that used a much lighter tint, which is apparently what I needed.  I can wear them indoors in relatively low light, which means I was finally able to wear them long enough to start to see a major effect.

That effect was just beginning to kick in, the week before last, when my wife and I went on a road trip, starting in Chicago, where my granddaughters live.  They quickly sat me down to watch The Wizard of Oz with them.  Now, I'm only red-green color-blind; I can see blues and yellows just fine.  So I knew to expect colors when Dorothy opened the door after arriving in Oz.  But really, I didn't know.  Munchkinland was a riot of unexpected beauty.  I managed to cry quietly, without (I think) the girls noticing.

I've always enjoyed movies, but now I want to rewatch any that are noted for their use of color.

Emboldened by that experience, we took a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.  I have largely avoided art museums all my life, because they tend to be very frustrating.  Many impressionist paintings were simply incomprehensible blurs to me.  But this time was different.  Some of them were still inscrutable, but others were a revelation.  I stood for fifteen minutes just staring at Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte."  My artist daughter gleefully guided me around, explaining colors to me, while the other three grandparents took the children to exhibits like the Thorne Rooms.

After 57 years on this planet, I suddenly like art museums.

From Chicago we drove to northern New York, where Trina's parents live.  On the drive there, Trina pointed out the trees changing color, but I was able to see only a bit of difference there.  I figured it was too subtle, and that I was still too color blind to appreciate autumn.

Trina's parents live in a cabin on a hill with a view westward over Trout Lake.  It's famous for its sunsets, of which I have seen hundreds over the years.  I've always loved sunsets, and I was eager to see what my new glasses might add.  Well before the sun began to set, I settled in on the couch, where I could simply look to the right to see the show.

Of course, I got wrapped up in working on my computer, and lost track of time as the sunset got under way.   I didn't look up until my father-in-law casually said, to no one in particular, "nice sunset."  I turned my head to the right, and my entire world changed.

I beheld a fiery sky, not just with more colors than I'd seen before, but extending far further in every direction than I'd ever imagined.  I immediately gasped so loudly that everyone in the house wanted to know what was wrong.  My jaw dropped and my hand clamped over my face, but I wasn't actually thinking anything.  The usual constant chatter of consciousness was simply gone, and for perhaps a few seconds, as the tears poured down my face, I was nothing but pure sensation, swimming in a sea of unfathomable beauty.

After seeing thousands of sunsets, I had finally seen a sunset.

Most surprising, though, was what happened after that.  My first conscious thought, emerging from that sea of bliss, was completely unexpected:  "Perhaps there really is a God."

If you know me, and my long history with religion, you know that this wasn't a casual thought.  In high school I stepped beyond my Jewish background and immersed myself in other religions -- a fundamentalist Christian prayer group, a Nichiren Buddhist sect, and the Bahai faith, for starters.  Then in college, I majored in comparative religions, with a particular interest in Zen Buddhism.  I was almost the textbook definition of an agnostic.  But over the years, cynicism and rationalism took over, and by the time Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush began demonstrating their competing visions of God's will, I was calling myself an atheist.  But in that one instant of beauty, I again became an agnostic.  I don't think I ever truly understood the concept of gratuitous beauty as evidence for the existence of God.

A few days later, we drove to Pittsburgh.  My color vision was clearly continuing to improve, because now I could see more colors in the trees.  I was beginning to learn to let go and simply experience the colors, rather than constantly trying to name them and test the limits of my perception.  I found I was much better at enjoying the colors than analyzing them, and I spent less time naming them and more time appreciating them.

In Pittsburgh, we went with our friends Tom and Cheryl to the Phipps Conservatory, where every flower with any shade of red in it was a revelation to me.  They seemed to bask in the reflected wonder as I saw things in flowers I had never seen before -- at least once being startled enough to gasp aloud once again.  Tom said he'd never seen someone so literally following his bliss.

After years of disinterest, I found myself thinking I might enjoy gardening.

I was in Pittsburgh for a celebration of the 25th anniversary of CMU's School of Computer Science, and it was there that I went next.  Even as I listened to the (very interesting) professional talks, I was aware of a growing sense of pervasive beauty all around me.  Even a pile of garbage was more interesting with my newfound color sense, but people in particular were visual miracles.

I found myself staring at people's lips.  They were vivid and defining in a way they never had been before, even without makeup.  Women wearing lipstick drew my eyes irresistably.  For that matter, I was also seeing blush and most other kinds of makeup for the first time.  (With my natural vision, I can't see much more than blue eye shadow.)  It took a concerted effort not to stare like a creep.

After years of fascination, I found women more beautiful than I had ever imagined.

And red hair!  In college, at one point, I was talking with my best friend of the last two years, and the topic of nicknames came up.  "Well, people have always called me Red, of course," he said.  "Why?" I asked.  He looked at me strangely and said, "because I have flaming red hair."  "You do?"  I asked.  But now I could identify many people as redheads, all by myself, and some of them stood out like lightbulbs from across the room.

I expected the drive home from Pittsburgh to be anticlimactic, but it wasn't.  My color vision had improved to the point where the fall colors were visible enough for me to stare at them, smiling, for hours.

I don't want to overstate what has happened to me.  I'm still very color blind, just not as bad as before.  (To be technical:  I see 11 more of the Ishahara images.)  And there are negatives, too:  the glasses only work well at a certain distance -- too close or too far and the effect is sometimes lost.  Most alarmingly, the glasses play havoc with my depth perception.  Staircases have become a real hazard, and I managed to smash myself in the face with a car door because I misread its position.  I'm not complaining, not by a long shot, simply warning anyone else who might go down this road.

Most important to me, however, is a newfound motivation.  If I, at 57, can experience this much change in my color perception, how much good could it do a color-blind preschooler?  And how might we build on glasses such as these to give an even greater boost to color perception, perhaps even for those with normal color vision?  I am determined to answer these questions if I possibly can.  But not while the sun is setting.


  1. congratulations! i am very happy for you and i do hope the technology improves for children. you have inspired me to take the time to appreciate sunsets and sunrises- God's free daily gifts to us all.your daughter shared ur blog on her becoming supermommy fb page.

  2. Very cool! I still remember seeing you working on your old computer with the lime green text on the hot pink background. I'm happy for you that you got a set of glasses that work.

  3. Nathaniel:
    1.You made me cry, smiling the whole time.
    2. You need to go to Florida --maybe the Movie Studios park to see the million colored holiday lights, and then down to Key West for more sunsets
    3. I've often thought of the thousand beautiful toss-offs in creation as God's grace notes.
    Quests are what make life count. Talk about an adventure! And your words (which I'm sure still only tell a shred of what you're experiencing) do carry us along with you.

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  5. Amazing. I didn't know correction was possible.