Eyes Like a Butterfly


The year is 2067, and I can see billions of colors! I used a home Lasik kit to correct my own vision a few years back, and now I’ve just undergone a simple outpatient procedure to boost my color vision. What used to be an ordinary rainbow of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple has exploded into a dizzying array of exotic colors. It turns out that I look best in a new, distinct shade of grellow, and I almost passed out with excitement at the endless options for decorating my couch with colorful throw pillows.

I’m fantasizing again, naturally, but this time it may not be so far-fetched. Recently, I came across an article from Optics and Photonics News, suggesting that a gene therapy procedure could, in the future, be used to correct color blindness, and, more frivolously, to enhance normal vision with new dimensions of color. I swear I’m not on acid.

Normal human vision stems from three different cell types called cones, which detect red, green and blue light. Light from a red tomato hits the red receptor, which your brain then translates into what you see. A yellow banana’s light hits the green and red receptors and your brain says: hello yellow!

Some creatures have more than three channels. Birds and fish have four, with the fourth channel being ultraviolet light, a hue to which us humans are not privy. Butterflies have five channels, and the mantis shrimp has at least 12. Jealous!

The article cited above says that humans can normally distinguish up to a million or so distinct shades of color. But pentachromats — or animals that have five color channels such as butterflies — could, in theory, make out 10 billion colors! That even sounds overwhelming to my color-crazed self, like being buried alive in rainbows.

The rub here is that butterflies, and other critters well endowed with extra color receptors, don’t have the mental capacity to process all those colors. Their little brains can’t turn multiple color signals into new, distinct hues. So why do butterflies have five color channels? It may be that they need the extra channels to see even just a fraction of the colors we see, precisely because they don’t have the brain power.

Could humans be engineered in the future to have pentachromat eyes with the ability to distinguish 10 billion colors? Would the world look more beautiful? I tend to think so myself. And I bet “Double rainbow guy” would pass out in ecstasy.


2 thoughts on “Eyes Like a Butterfly

  1. So mantis shrimp can see all sorts of stuff that we can’t? That’s creepy. If I’m ever alone in the house preparing a mantis shrimp for dinner, and it starts staring intently at something just over my shoulder, I’m totally going to freak the f*** out.

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