The female superpower – Tetrachromacy!

Remember that biology class you took way back when – the one on the anatomy of the eye? Where you learned about rods and cones? Okay, it’s probably all coming back to you now… Anyhow, most humans are trichromatic. This means their retinas contain three different kinds of color receptor cells – the cones – each type corresponding to a particular wave length. One each for short-wave, medium-wave, and long-wave light, or one red light, one for green, and one for blue. Each cone can perceive about 100 colors in its range, but the brain can combine those into millions of colors. The average viewer can distinguish about one million hues. So, why am I bringing this up? Well, I was researching for a talk I was presenting at last night, and I wanted to talk about color as light, as opposed to color as pigment.

A refresher from the Encyclopedia of Medicine.

A refresher from the Encyclopedia of Medicine.


























As animals go, humans are about average when it comes to the ability to see color. Reptiles, birds and amphibians are usually Tetrachromats. Usually, this means that their fourth cone is in the ultra-violet part of the spectrum – the part we humans can’t see. Male birds with feathers seemingly not too different from the females when seen in normal light turned out to have very different feathers from their female counterparts when observed under a black light. Birds can see the UV spectrum in daylight, but we need a UV-detector to see what they see. Other mammals generally have worse color vision than humans do. Dogs and cats, for example have comparatively poor vision, which of course they compensate for with exceptional hearing and olfactory senses.

The feathers of this Cockatiel is enhanced - to us - by being illuminated with a black light. Photo courtesy of

The feathers of this Cockatiel is enhanced – to us – by being illuminated with a black light. Photo courtesy of

Genetically, the cones are carried on the X-chromosomes. Sometimes, there is a difference in the copies of the gene. Since there needs to be two X-chromosomes in order for this difference to occur, this particular superpower only manifests itself in women. There might be a slight variation, or there might be a marked difference – or there might not be much of a difference at all. The jackpot happens when the extra cone falls right between the usual red and green cone, in the middle of the orange part of the spectrum.  The practical effect is that the woman essentially is given a fourth kind of cone! This means that her ability to distinguish between colors increases exponentially.

A fourth cone to propel you into Superpower ability would be smack in the middle of the orange field. Image courtesy of

A fourth cone to propel you into Superpower ability would be smack in the middle of the orange field. Image courtesy of

Studies show that only an estimated 2-3% of all women are functional Tetrachromats (meaning they hit the above mentioned jackpot), whereas about half of all women have a differing ability and sensitivity to color, per that slight variation in their cones. The 2-3% are essentially visual superheroes! I would require a genetic test as well as further research done on me to prove what I’m about to say, but I’m willing to bet I’m pretty close to the jackpot, if not there. All my life I have felt, as well as seen, color differently than most others around me. It is more of a multi-dimensional, sensory perception than simply visionary. It probably sounds very pretentious, but it is true. And, it was my uncanny ability with color that made my father gift me with my first color class for my birthday one year – an act that, while still undecided, put me well on my way toward making a career choice.

So, in conclusion, if you ever wondered why women are so much pickier about color than men – there is your answer! A lot of us are. We simply have a visual range that goes far beyond that of the majority. The visual range of a functional Tetrachromat can encompass 100,000,000 colors! That’s why!!!


About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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17 Responses to The female superpower – Tetrachromacy!

  1. bergstromskan says:

    Thank you Anna for sharing information about one of your amazing gifts. I trust you are right about being one of the 3%. I have seen it since you were about 2-3 years old. It is wonderful that you are using it with such confidence-and sharing the information.

  2. Lisa C. D. says:

    This is sooo interesting!! I knew nothing about it! So you are one of the lucky woman!! congratulations 😉

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks Lisa! Isn’t it, though?? I guess my degree of tetrachromacy still remains to be scientifically proven, but I’m pretty sure I’m there. Color has always come easy to me, but not until I learned this did I understand what a huge advantage I actually have. Pretty cool…

  3. Elvis says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for the info, Anna.
    I loved taking the following test and I think Tetrachromacy must be why some of us can do so well on it:
    See how you do!

    • annamadeit says:

      That is such a cool test, Jane! Thank you for sharing it! I got a perfect score, but had to double check myself in the left part of the third row. For some reason the blue-greens were a little trickier for me. 🙂

  4. Very interesting. I’m envious. This is almost as good as a super power.

  5. Pingback: What’s the deal with little girls and pink? | The Creative Flux

  6. Suzanne says:

    Love this post – would love to give you the opportunity to interview/write about the first scientifically authenticated and endorsed tetrachromat Concetta Antico – As the first tetrachromat artist, Concetta continues to give her life to her gift of seeing more colors. Please let me know if you’re interested and I can send you a media kit for more info!

  7. Diana Eng says:

    That bird is my Cornelius! She’s a pearl split to pied Cockatiel under a black light!

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