Red-Green Color Blindness

You could already learn a lot about the different types of color blindness and what color blindness actually is. In this chapter of Color Blind Essentials I would like to tell and show you some more and deeper details about the most common and also most well known type of color vision deficiency: red-green color blindness.

Discovery of red-green color blindness

Memoirs of the life and scientific
researches of John Dalton

Already John Dalton wrote about his color vision deficiency. Red, orange, yellow, and green all appeared to be the same color to him. The rest of the color spectrum seemed to be blue, gradually changing to purple. Dalton concluded already in the year 1798, that he can not see long wavelength red light—known as protanopia today.

Some recent genetic analysis of Dalton’s preserved eyes showed, that he was suffering from deuteranopia—another form of red-green color blindness. But anyway this is the first description of the red-green color vision deficiency.

In 1837 August Seebeck carried out some systematic color vision tests and found two different classes of red-green color blindness with differences in severity from weak to strong in both classes.

After that investigations started to gather more details and scientists learned a lot more about our color vision: The genetic source of color vision, its deficiencies and the precise knowledge about the mechanism of color vision in our eyes.

The facts

With the knowledge of the last two chapters on what color blindness really is and the different types of color blindness, we can put together the following list of facts about red-green color blindness:

Facts on Red-Green Color Blindness
Red-green color blindness is a generic term for protanopia (red-blindness), protanomaly (red-weakness), deuteranopia (green-blindness), and deuteranomaly (green-weakness).
More than 99% of all color blind people are suffering from a red-green color vision deficiency.
About 8% of all men and 0.5% of all women are suffering from it.
Any severity starting from slightly over moderately, strongly or absolutely is possible.
Red-green color blindness is a recessive, sex linked trait (encoded on the X chromosome). This results in much more men to suffer from it than women.
It is usually inherited from a grandfather to his grandson, with the mother in between acting as the carrier of the disease.
Not only red and green can’t be distinguished, but the whole color spectrum is affected by color blindness.

Unfortunately many people don’t even know one of those seven basic facts on red-green color blindness. This often causes a lot of confusion and many misunderstandings related to this term.

Often confused colors

The following little story happened to me a few years back. I am suffering from a strong red-blindness, so this is really a true story:

I was standing on a balcony with a few friends on the fourth floor, looking into the grass fields down below us. After a while one of my friends asked, why the fire hydrant is standing in the middle of the field with no path close to it.

I looked down and asked: “Which fire hydrant?” — Silence — Laughter.

“Can’t you see that orange fire hydrant in the middle of the field? It stands out so obviously with its orange color!”

I couldn’t see it. Only after a while, scanning the field for a fire hydrant, I found it. But not because of its color but of its structure.

This story is very typical as orange and green are some of the big problem colors for red-green color blind people. But not only those colors are mixed up. Colors from the whole color spectrum can cause problems in terms of not being able to distinguish them if you are color blind.

The table on the left shows five example color pairs of confusion. As severity and type of color blindness can be very different, such color pairs are quite individual. I have chosen some colors in the color spectrum which I—as a strongly red-blind guy—can not distinguish.

As you can see, not only the base colors red and green cause problems. It is the mixture of the red part in the colors which makes colors indistinguishable for my eyes.

Remark: Moving in front of the computer screen or flipping the display fore- and backward can change the color perception a lot. Also if you print them out colors are perceived quite differently, specially from colorblind people.

On the other side not all reds and greens are indistinguishable colors for a red-green color blind person. Some greens and some reds can be seen and named even with a strong color vision deficiency.

Difference between red- and green-blindness

You know by now that red-green color blindness is actually just a generic term for any form of protan (red-blind) and deutan (green-blind) color vision deficiency. But what is the difference between those two or why are they often put together into the same pot?

Let us first have a look at the things those two different main types of color blindness have in common:

  • The main axis of colors of confusion is the same and so both types have the same main problem colors: red, orange, yellow, green, brown.
  • The genetic information is located at almost the same place on the X chromosome. Trichromatic vision developed much later in evolution while splitting the previous information of a single channel on red-yellow-green into those two different cone encodings.
  • The peak of sensitivity for red and green cone types is very close to each other. Trichromatic anomalies result in the shift of one of those peaks towards the other one.

On the other hand there are also some differences which makes it possible to split red- and green-blind people into two separate groups while testing for color blindness:

  • Red-blind people perceive the color red much darker. If you compare the results of Rayleigh matches—a color blindness test where you have to match yellow with a mixture of green and red—red-blind people use a much darker yellow to get a match.
  • The colors of confusion in the blue-purple area of the color spectrum are quite different. Red-blind people will mix in much more red and still can get a match between blue and purple.

But if you compare those two types with blue-yellow color blindness the differences in between them are very small. Therefore you will most often just talk either about red-green or blue-yellow color vision deficiency and forget about the rest.

By the way, if you think about the term itself and combine it with all the facts gathered together by now, you should know that red-green color blindness actually doesn’t really exist at all ;-).

In the next part of Color Blind Essentials you will learn more about the different possibilities to test your color vision and how good these tests really are.