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The Case of the Colorblind Painter

Some Uncommon Observations About Vitiated Sight

by Robert Boyle
J. Taylor (London, 1688)

Disorders of Complex Visual Processing”

by Antonio R. Damasio. in M-Marsel Mesulam, ed., Principles of Behavioral Neurology
F.A. Davis, 405 pp., $55.00

Caspar Hauser

by Anselm von Feuerbach
Simpkin & Marshall (London, 1834)

The Intelligent Eye

by Richard L. Gregory
McGraw Hill (1971, out of print)

Physiological Optics Society of America, Washington, DC, 1924

by Hermann von Helmholtz. original edition 1856–1867, translation published by The Optical

The Retinex Theory of Color Vision”

by Edwin H. Land in Scientific American
Vol. 237

Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information

by David Marr
W.H. Freeman, 397 pp., $25.95 (paper)

Retinex Theory and Colour Constancy,” article by J.J. McCann

in Richard L. Gregory, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind
Oxford University Press, 856 pp., $49.95

Colour Vision: Eye Mechanisms,” article by W.A.H. Rushton

in Richard L. Gregory, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind
Oxford University Press, 856 pp., $49.95

Remarks on Colour

by Ludwig Wittgenstein
University of California Press, 126 pp., $7.95 (paper)

The Construction of Colours by the Cerebral Cortex” an article by S. Zeki

in Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain
Vol. 56, 231-257 pp.

Selective Disturbance of Movement Vision after Bilateral Brain Damage”

in Brain, article by J. Zihl et al.
Vol. 106 pp.

Colourful Notions series The Nature of Things (1984)

A film written and produced by John Roth

1.

Early in March 1986 one of us received the following letter:

I am a rather successful artist just past 65 years of age. On January 2nd of this year I was driving my car and was hit by a small truck on the passenger side of my vehicle.

When visiting the emergency room of a local hospital, I was told I had a concussion. While taking an eye examination, it was discovered that I was unable to distinguish letters or colors. The letters appeared to be Greek letters. My vision was such that everything appeared to me as viewing a black and white television screen.

Within days, I could distinguish letters and my vision became that of an eagle—I can see a worm wriggling a block away. The sharpness of focus is incredible.

BUT—I AM ABSOLUTELY COLOR BLIND.

I have visited ophthalmologists who know nothing about this colorblind business. I have visited neurologists, to no avail. Under hypnosis I still can’t distinguish colors. I have been involved in all kinds of tests. You name it.

My brown dog is dark grey. Tomato juice is black. Color TV is a hodge-podge. Etc., etc.

This seemed an extraordinary letter. The artist was not born colorblind, which is what one immediately thinks of when people say they are “colorblind.” When one speaks of colorblindness, one usually is speaking of an inborn defect in seeing particular colors. This condition was described in the 1780s by John Dalton, who suffered from it himself, and it is sometimes called “Daltonism.” Probably it has always existed, and indeed been quite common: it is estimated that between 4 and 5 percent of men have the common red-green colorblindness, while it is much rarer in women. Extremely rarely (the estimated incidence is only one in five million), people may be born wholly colorblind. The cone cells of the retina, of which there are three groups, respond differentially to wavelengths, and serve as our primary color receptors. In those born partially or totally colorblind, some or all of one type of light-sensitive cones, occasionally two types, are missing, or missing their light-sensitive pigment.

But clearly none of these conditions applied to our correspondent, Jonathan I. He had seen normally all his life, had been born with a full complement of cones, or color receptors, and presumably still had these. He had become colorblind, after sixty-five years of seeing colors normally. And he did not just confuse some colors or see them as gray, as is usually the case with the congenitally colorblind. He had become totally colorblind—as if “viewing a black and white television screen.” All this came on suddenly when he had an accident. The suddenness of the event was incompatible with any of the slow deteriorations that can befall the retinal cone cells, and suggested, instead, a mishap at a higher level, in those parts of the brain specialized in perceiving color.

Total colorblindness caused by brain damage, so-called acquired cerebral achromatopsia, though described by Robert Boyle1 as much as three centuries ago, remains a rare, intriguing, and important condition. It is important because (like all neural dissolutions and destructions) it can reveal to us the mechanisms of neural construction, specifically how the brain constructs color. Doubly intriguing is its occurrence in an artist, a painter in whose life color has been of primary importance, and who can directly paint as well as describe what has befallen him, and thus convey the full strangeness, distress, and reality of the condition. Through such a case we can trace not only the underlying cerebral mechanisms or physiology, but also the subjective experience, the phenomenology of color.

Color is not a trivial subject: it has not only excited the great natural philosophers—Newton, Young, Helmholtz—and incited Goethe’s Farbenlehre, but it has intrigued philosophers as well. Wittgenstein thought color especially important, not least because it escapes notice (“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity”). Color, normally, is hidden from us, precisely because we take it for granted. This, doubtless, is one of the reasons why Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour are so largely based on conversation with the colorblind, with those whose color world is at odds with our own. But what would Wittgenstein have thought, and said, and asked, had he met someone wholly colorblind, with an acquired cerebral colorblindness, an artist like Mr. I.?

2.

When we first saw him, on April 13, 1986, Jonathan I. was a tall, gaunt man, showing obvious recent weight loss. He spoke intelligently and well, both analytically and vividly, but in a soft and rather lifeless voice. He rarely smiled; he was manifestly depressed. We got a sense of inner pain, fear, and tension, held in with difficulty beneath his civilized discourse.

We learned that his accident had been accompanied by a transient amnesia. He had been able, evidently, to give a clear account of himself and his accident to the police at the time it happened, late on the afternoon of January 2. He then went to his studio to see someone interested in his work but cut short this meeting because of a steadily mounting headache. Arriving home, he complained to his wife of having a headache and feeling confused, but made no mention of the accident. He then fell into a long, almost stuporous sleep. It was only the next morning, when his wife saw the side of the car stove in, that she asked him what had happened. When she got no clear answer (“I don’t know. Maybe somebody backed into it”) she knew that something serious must have happened.

Mr. I. then drove off to his studio, and found on his desk a carbon copy of the police accident report. He had had an accident, then, but somehow, bizarrely, had lost his memory of it. Perhaps the report would jolt his memory. But lifting it up, he could make nothing of it. He saw print of different sizes and types, all clearly in focus, but it looked like “Greek” or “Hebrew” to him. A magnifying glass did not help; it simply became large “Greek” or “Hebrew.” (This alexia, or inability to read, was still present five days later, but then apparently disappeared.)

Feeling now that he must have suffered a stroke or some sort of brain damage from the accident, Jonathan I. phoned his doctor, who arranged for him to be seen and tested at a local hospital. Although, as his original letter indicates, difficulties in distinguishing colors were detected at this time, in addition to his gross alexia, he had no subjective sense of the alteration of colors until the next day.

That day he decided to go to work again. It seemed to him as if he were driving in a fog, even though he knew it to be a bright and sunny morning. Everything seemed misty, bleached, grayish, indistinct. His bewilderment and fear now became a feeling of horror. He was flagged down by the police close to his studio: he had gone through two red lights, they said. Did he realize this? No, he said, he was not aware of having passed through any lights. They asked him to get out of the car. Finding him sober, but apparently bewildered and ill, they gave him a ticket and advised him to seek medical advice.

Mr. I. arrived at his studio with relief, expecting that the horrible mist would be gone, that everything would be clear again. But as soon as he entered, he found his entire studio, which was hung with brilliantly colored paintings (see illustration of his pre-accident work on page 33), now utterly gray and void of color. His canvases, the abstract color paintings he was known for, all were grayish or black and white, unintelligible. Now to horror there was added despair: even his art was without meaning, and he could no longer imagine how to go on.

The weeks that followed were very difficult. “You might think,” Mr. I. said, “loss of color vision, what’s the big deal? Some of my friends said this, my wife sometimes thought this, but to me, at least, it was awful, disgusting.” It was not just that colors were missing, but that what he did see had a distasteful, “dirty” look, the whites glaring, yet discolored and off-white, the blacks cavernous—everything wrong, unnatural, stained, and impure.2

Mr. I. could hardly bear the changed appearances of people (“like animated gray statues”) any more than he could bear his own changed appearance in the mirror: he shunned social intercourse and found sexual intercourse impossible. He saw people’s flesh, his wife’s flesh, his own flesh, as an abhorrent gray; “flesh-colored” now appeared “rat-colored” to him. This was so even when he closed his eyes, for his preternaturally vivid (“eidetic”) visual imagery was preserved but now without color, and forced on him images, forced him to “see” but see internally with the wrongness of his achromatopsia. He found foods disgusting in their grayish, dead appearance and had to close his eyes to eat. But this did not help very much, for the mental image of a tomato was as black as its appearance.

He knew the colors of everything, with an extraordinary exactness (he could give not only the names but the “numbers” of colors as these were listed in a Pantone chart of hues he had used for many years). He could describe the green of Van Gogh’s billiard table in this way with exactitude. He knew all the colors, but could no longer see them, either when he looked or in his mind’s eye, his imagination or memory.

The “wrongness” of everything was disturbing, even disgusting, and applied to every circumstance of daily life. Thus, unable to rectify even the inner image, the idea, of various foods, he turned increasingly to black and white foods—to black olives and white rice, black coffee and yogurt. These at least appeared relatively normal, whereas most foods, normally colored, now appeared horribly abnormal.

He encountered difficulties and distresses of virtually every sort in daily life, from the confusion of red and green traffic lights (which he could now distinguish only by position) to a virtual inability to choose his clothes. (His wife had to pick them out, and this dependency he found hard to bear; later, he had everything classified in his drawers and closet—gray socks here, yellow there, ties labeled, jackets and suits categorized, to prevent otherwise glaring incongruities and confusions.) Fixed and ritualistic practices and positions had to be adopted at the table; otherwise he might mistake the mustard for the mayonnaise, or, if he could bring himself to use the blackish stuff, ketchup for jam.

He particularly missed the brilliant colors of spring—he had always loved flowers, but now he could only distinguish them by shape or smell. The blue jays were brilliant no longer; their blue, curiously, was now seen as pale gray. This odd pallor replaced even the most intense blues. He could no longer see the clouds in the sky, their whiteness, or off-whiteness as he saw them, being scarcely distinguishable from the azure, which was bleached, for him, to a pale gray. Red and green peppers, on the other hand, were indistinguishable: both appeared black.

  1. 1

    Robert Boyle, Some Uncommon Observations about Vitiated Sight (London: J. Taylor, 1688). Boyle described the case of a young woman of twenty-three who lost all color vision following a cerebral fever, probably a meningitis, and thereafter saw only black and white.

  2. 2

    Similarly, a patient of Dr. Antonio R. Damasio, with achromatopsia from a tumor, thought everything and everyone looked “dirty,” even finding new-fallen snow unpleasant and dirty.

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