Color, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What you view as red or blue is actually the unique way in which your mind interprets light, and in about 4 percent of the population this interpretation is profoundly skewed. The result is a compromised ability to distinguish certain hues, or as we’ve come to call it, color blindness.
The root of color blindness lies in the inadequate absorption of light by special cells known as photoreceptors, and a fairly recent chance discovery has led to an intriguing approach to correcting this imperfection. In 2010, Don McPherson, a glass engineer working in San Francisco, lent a pair of glasses he had designed to protect doctors’ eyes during laser corrective surgery to a friend to use as sunglasses during a game of Frisbee. Much to the two men’s surprise, the glasses had the unexpected effect of allowing the friend to see hues he had never before experienced.
“He just thought they looked cool, and then he started exclaiming that he could see things,” says McPherson. It wasn’t until McPherson realized his Frisbee-mate was color-blind that the response made sense—and that’s when EnChroma technology was born.
EnChroma glasses work by selectively blocking out some of the light in the color spectrum, essentially reshaping the way our eyes respond to light, and allowing those with color blindness to see the world almost as those with normal color vision do. According to Christopher Rooney, a red-green color blind environmental scientist who recently tried out the glasses for Newsweek, the experience is similar to turning up the saturation on a photo filter. “[While driving] my eye seemed to catch all the green street signs and red cars in particular,” says Rooney. “They really stood out, to the point where it was almost distracting.”
While the effect of wearing EnChroma glasses is fascinating, it’s what happens after users take off the glasses that is truly noteworthy: Many claim they still see enhanced colors even without the glasses. No controlled scientific studies have been undertaken yet, but experts say the idea that light-filtering glasses could train the brain to see color is not that far-fetched. Dr. Marc Dinkin, director of neuro-ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, explains that theoretically, the brain could get used to the concept of different color perceptions through the use of specific filters, such as the glasses, and continue to make this distinction even once the glasses are taken away.
“It used to be thought that the adult brain did not change at all, and know we know that isn’t true,” says Dinkin, explaining that the brain’s plasticity allows neural connections to change, and those modifications could improve a person’s color recognition. These effects of the glasses need further testing, of course, but for now the glasses serve as a virtually risk-free way (other than cost—they start at $350) for the color blind to have a glimpse of a world awash in coloration.