Seeing Colors With My Brain Versus My Eyes

Healthy Vision Month

Editor’s note: May is Healthy Vision Month. Although Maribel has retinitis pigmentosa, a group of hereditary retinal diseases for which there is presently no definitive treatment, in this post she discusses her appreciation of vision. She encourages you to make your eye health a priority during this month. Take the first step by getting a dilated eye exam. And find out more steps you can take to preserve vision.

Maribel smelling pink roses

What Color Is That?

As a person with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), my impaired eyes can only offer vague information coming from faulty light-sensitive cells at the back of my retinas, yet my brain prods the eyes to send more information to clarify the scene ahead and constantly asks, “what color is that?” In “normal vision” our eyes use two kinds of specialized cells for seeing called rods and cones. Millions of these cells within our retinas allow our eyes and brain to work together to detect the color spectrum, movement and the shape and size of everything we look at. Rods help us to adjust quickly to light and dark changes and work better in the dark. Cones are those clever cells sensitive to color; they work best in bright light. If a person is color-blind, they are lacking a particular type of cone in their retinas. In my case, I constantly observe the internal dialog taking place, aware that eyes and brain are feeding information to one another, using brain logic and heart desire, to know what is before my eyes.

What Color Is the Sky?

colors of night sky-blue and pink

I look upwards towards a cloudy sky, the sun setting like a painting. Obviously though, most of the six million cone-cells that detect color in my eyes are not conveying reliable messages to the organ of sight anymore. I can almost sense the brain becoming impatient as signals via the optic nerve are not coming quickly enough and so, brain asks eyes, “please be more specific. I have no idea what color that is.” I gaze at the sky more intensely. My impaired eyes falter and try hard to cooperate.”Well, at this time of dusk, logically, it should be a shade of deepening blue, right?” My brain likes logic, and in a few nanoseconds, scans my childhood memory-bank to recall all the blue hues I may have stored there. Like the painter Monet, I too am eager to capture a sense of the light dancing across the vast canvas of the skyline.

Eyesight or Brain Sight?

But am I seeing through visually-impaired eyes or through the logical deductions of the brain? I think perhaps a little of both. The internal dialog is still pondering what color is now blanketing the evening sky as it turns from a light something, to a darker something. I feel content to be seeing the-whatever-it-is I am seeing; amused by the relay of signals and mixing of colors in the brain. My mind chooses logical deduction from other sensitivities too. If a current of air travels over my sun-warmed skin, the likelihood that a summer’s day is shedding her glow means my eyes can imagine the shades of vivid pinks, crimson yellows or orange chromes. On the other hand, the mildness of the day could suggest that the sky is a mixture of warm greys swirling with tinges of mauve-purples. ”Ok, sounds good!” Brain and eyes finally agree on an image. Let’s imagine those colors. Color fades into rich textures. Then a much darker shadow draws my attention from skyline to fence-line. The deep green blob is a beautiful Australian Blackwood. I see the tree’s image as a tall and wide dark something, towering upward to the night sky, casting a majestic shadow over our garden.

Vision Fades, but Still Enjoying the World

As my eyesight fades with every passing season, it doesn’t stop me enjoying the world around me. In my enclosed garden full of soft petals, perfumes, tasty leaves, snagging branches, the scent of sweet jasmine and sharp rosemary mingle in the calm night air. My toes are tickled by the thick carpet of buffalo grass as I walk with bare feet, taking in this serene landscape from every sensory fibre of my body. Patrolling fingertips catch cheeky weeds as I feel the different textures of leaves and closed buds and I ask each plant, “Are you a weed or a flower; intruder or friend?” I cruise the garden beds, putting my face right into flowering blooms and make a mental note of everything.

Color in the Night Air

The distant sound of a light aircraft gliding across the sky distracts sensitive ears. I tilt my head towards the sound, pointing my audio-antennae, like Hobbit-ears, and track the stereo effect: from far left, to the centre of the sky – and away to the far right. The bright staccato rhythms of the insect chorus have reached a deafening crescendo and dominate the sounds now in the night air. The sky has shifted through many shades in such a short time. My brain has to ask my eyes one more question. “Do you remember seeing the evening stars?” “Vaguely. But I’m happy to imagine them again. Brain, tell me, what color are they?”

Read about Healthy Vision Month.

More on the Brain

Brain research and vision

“Vision and the Brain: Understanding Cerebral Visual Impairment in Children”, a new AFB Press publication

Traumatic Brain Injury