Episode 88: Impossi-Color!

Shea teaches us about colors that aren’t, then Aaron tells patrons about super artists! Bonus BTS patron chat.

Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that is kinda drunk right now, thanks mimosas!

I’m your host this week, Shea, and with me is the indomitable Aaron:

I’m Aaron, and I brought my amazing, technicolor, dream-mimosa.

Imposi-Color! Better than the burger.

So, this week I was sitting in a high school Space Science class this week with one of my students and we were learning about the electromagnetic spectrum, a cool fact only .0035% of the spectrum is visible light. We eventually got on the subject of human eyes and the photoreceptors we have, humans have rods and cones. Quick science lesson, rods are responsible for low light vision and don’t do color, whereas cones are in charge of the color with cones of red, blue, and green. If you remember, the rods and cones in my eyes are lazy as hell and don’t really work, hence my complete color blindness and inability to see at night. Regardless of my shitty vision, some of these facts got me thinking about color and wondering if we all see the same colors and how there is no real way to know, but what we do know is your eyes and brain like to invent a lot of colors you see.

While falling down a rabbit hole filled with colors I can’t see I learned about Impossible Colors! These are colors our eyes simply cannot process because of the antagonistic way our cones work, for instance, “red-green” or “yellow-blue.” There is some pretty crazy stuff about color, my colorblind ass is going to attempt to teach you today.

We take the way we see the world for granted. But our experience of the world is shaped in part by our visual system—which is both extremely complex and limited. Impossible colors, which are sometimes called non-physical colors, are a great reminder to not consider our perception of the visual world the only possible experience.

I want you to try and imagine reddish-green — not the dull brown you get when you mix the two pigments, but rather a color that is somewhat like red and somewhat like green. Or, instead, try to picture yellowish blue — not green, but a hue similar to both yellow and blue.

I can’t, but that could be because I forgot what those colors look like but I have a feeling most of you are having a hard time doing it too. Even though those colors exist, you’ve probably never seen them. Red-green and yellow-blue are the so-called “impossible colors.” Composed of pairs of hues whose light frequencies automatically cancel each other out in the human eye, they’re supposed to be impossible to see simultaneously.

The human eye has three types of cone cells that register color and work in an antagonistic fashion:

Blue versus yellow

Red versus green

Light versus dark

There is overlap between the wavelengths of light covered by the cone cells, so you see more than just blue, yellow, red, and green. White, for example, is not a wavelength of light, yet the human eye perceives it as a mixture of different spectral colors. Because of the opponent process, you can’t see both blue and yellow at the same time, nor red and green. I’d like to explain the opponent process but it is way above my paygrade and I’m a bit too dumb to figure it out on my own, what I stole from Healthline.com was “the opponent-process theory suggests that the way humans perceive colors is controlled by three opposing systems.” So, you’re welcome.

To wrap my head around this I need a bit more understanding of color itself. The colors we see are only reflections of light with different wavelengths. We see colors when the reflected light from an object is detected by millions of color-sensing cells in our retina known as cones. For example, orange fruit is not inherently orange. When light passes through the orange’s surface, certain wavelengths are absorbed and others are reflected back and sensed by cones. These cones send electrical signals to our brain that process the data into a recognizable color, in this case, orange. Orange light is on the lower end of the spectrum with wavelengths of 630 nanometers, red is at the bottom of the spectrum with wavelengths of 665 nm, and violet is at the top of our visual spectrum at 400 nm.

So we talked about one of the types of impossible colors: red/green blue/yellow. They are impossible colors but also called forbidden colors. There are two other types: Chimerical colors and Imaginary colors.

Another type of imaginary color is a chimerical color. A chimerical color is seen by looking at a color until the cone cells are fatigued and then looking at a different color. This produces an afterimage perceived by the brain, not the eyes.

Look directly at the + in the center for 20 to 30 seconds.

You can see impossible colors if you’re good at crossing your eyes but chimerical colors are a lot easier to see just by tiring out your eyes a bit. If you go to our website I have a cool gif that will help you see some new colors. Stare at a cross on a dot and when it shifts to black, white, or orange your eyes will have an after image with a new color.

Chimerical colors don’t appear within the color space of human vision. As the name suggests, they are a construct of the mind. They can be created by inducing a natural process of the eye called color fatigue. If you stare at a color for a long time your eye will temporarily displace the colorspace by the opposing color. So if you stare at yellow, then black, for a short time you will perceive that black to contain blue. The color you are seeing is out of the range of visible colors. It is a pitch-black blue; thus it is deemed an impossible color. There are three types of chimeric colors: Hyperbolic, Luminous, and Stygian.

As the name suggests, hyperbolic colors are normal colors but are exaggerated beyond what is physically possible for our eyes to perceive. If you stare at bright cyan and then view the orange afterimage on an orange background, you see “hyperbolic orange.” If my gif is embedded properly you can see hyperbolic orange in the first dot, orange.

Luminous colors are simultaneously pure white and “glow” another color. An example is “self-luminous red,” which may be seen by staring at green and then looking at white. When green cones are fatigued, the after-image is red. Looking at white causes the red to appear brighter than white, as if it was glowing.

Our last type of chimeric color is the coolest name, in my opinion, stygian colors. These impossible colors are similar to luminous but instead of looking at white for an after image you look at black. Stygian colors are dark and supersaturated. For example, “stygian blue” may be seen by staring at bright yellow and then looking at black. The normal afterimage is dark blue. When viewed against black, the resulting blue is as dark as black, yet colored. Stygian colors appear on black because certain neurons only fire signals in the dark.

The word stygian means of, or pertaining to Hades or the River Styx, so metal! The river Styx was described as being blue, yet as dark as black.

Imaginary colors. “Real” colors are colors that can be produced by a physical light source. Although “imaginary” colors are outside this spectrum and no physical object can have an imaginary color, they are often found in the mathematical descriptions that define color spaces. An example of imaginary color is “hyper-green.”

To be honest, imaginary colors confuse me the most and I can’t find a ton of information on them and I’m not good enough at math to even wrap my head around them. But what I gather is some wavelengths are a color that exists but nothing happens naturally in nature.

Magenta color swatch.

While doing my research for impossible colors I kept coming across links saying magenta wasn’t real… What? I know magenta exists. I saw it at the paint store, so I had to click. Magenta, for the uninitiated/color blind, is a mixture of red and violet, pretty straightforward, except it’s not. If you looked at the color spectrum earlier you can see that we start at the low end with red and on the opposite side is violet… They are literally on the opposite side of the spectrum so how does that work? Magenta, because it doesn’t exist on the light spectrum, doesn’t have one. Rather, it’s something our brain creates to fill in space in a way that makes sense.

Normally when two different frequencies of wavelengths hit our eyes the brain simply averages the colors to come up with an outcome. If you mix green and red light, you’ll end up with a yellow light because the brain has averaged it. When you mix red and purple light, your brain averages them. Ultimately, this would reasonably come out to green — that’s the average wavelength — but because your brain wants the outcome to make logical sense, it mixes the colors and you get magenta.

Looking at a picture of the spectrum you can see how this theory works.

This is how we view most colors: as averages of three main colors. So which three? As it turns out, the brain only has three photoreceptors, and because of this, the three colors we can technically see are as follows:



And… green

This is why when you see colors labeled, you’ll often have a number that looks something like (r, g, b) (255, 0, 255) — this is the number for Magenta — which defines what amounts of each of the main colors go into the making of the end color. On this R, G, B spectrum, the maximum amount of any color is 225.

Arguably, color doesn’t exist because it’s just an interpretation made by our brains to distinguish different wavelengths from one another. This keeps me up at night… Evolution-wise, this ability to see in color would have been more beneficial than seeing in black and white — different fruits can be distinguished as ripe, different predators told apart better.

Other species throughout the animal kingdom have been found to have this ability, too — and although humans have pretty decent color recognition, animals such as the Mantis Shrimp, which have the most with 16 different photoreceptors. Different animals can see differently, with the bumblebee having three receptors, but further to the ultraviolet side to help them see more markings on plants.

I’ll leave you with an incredibly well-written tumbler thread from Pyrrhiccomedy


“Your brain is a badly-designed hot mess of a bootstrapped chemistry that will tell you that all kinds of shit is happening that has no correlation to physical reality, including time travel. It just makes things up. Your brain is guessing about what’s happening when your eyes saccade, what’s happening in your blind spot, and the majority of the visible light spectrum looks like, and you don’t know it’s happening because it doesn’t aid your survival to become aware that alot of what you see is fake.

The human eye only has three types of color-sensitive cones, which detect red, blue, and green light. Your brain is making up every other color you perceive.”

They go on…

“Here’s the funny thing: your brain is never perceiving just one photon of light at a time. Something like 2×10^8 photons per second are hitting your retina under normal conditions. Your brain doesn’t individually process all of them. So it averages them out. It grabs a bunch of photons all coming from the same direction, with the same pattern, and goes, “yeah, that cup is blue, fuck it, next.”

That’s how colors blend in our eyes. So sure, if a photon of light with a wavelength of 550 nanometers bounces into our eyes, we see what we call yellow. But if we see two photons at the same time from the same object, one of which is 500 NMS and the other of which is 600 NMS, your brain will average them out and you will still see yellow even though none of the light you just saw was 550 NMS.

Thank you so much Pyrrhiccomedy you have been able to explain this better than anything I have read and in conclusion, no, magenta doesn’t exist and neither do most of the colors you see. Boom! Mind blown!


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You Could Say She’s the Reverse Shea…

I haven’t figured them all out yet, but there are some Flash jokes on the way… though maybe Cyclops would be more appropriate… Or maybe Polka Dot Man… It’s a story about eyes and color.

Shea said he was doing the main story about color facts, hopefully, this isn’t one…


Which is cool, but not Tetris-necromancy cool.

Australian artist, Concetta Antico’s work is surprisingly muted. I don’t mean that to be critical, her work is fantastic. Think Hallmark with a touch of Van Gough and you’ll be heading in the right direction. She paints still life, classic scenes, clouds — you know, impressionist stuff.

Anyway, the reason I was surprised by the tones of her work is that when you Google her name — much to her chagrin I’m sure — you don’t see her work, you get a ton of fluff pieces about her having tetrachromacy. Usually, the headline is in the vein of “Artist Sees 10 Million More Colors Than You Do!” Which is… true-ish.

Far from irreducibly complex, the eye is actually pretty simply explained. We have rods and cones — receptors that detect different wavelengths of light — in our eyes. Rods do tones and cones do color. Also, don’t take Optician advice from a podcast.

The rods aren’t super high def and they don’t do color. The cones have color and acuity. Most people have three cones, Concetta effectively has four — tetrachromacy.

Shea mentioned mantis shrimp which, famously, have sexnoclar eyes. Kinky. That is, each eye has three retinas for a total sensory input of 6 images. Super simplified of course. For comparison’s sake, we can see 3 color wavelengths, they can see 9. So basically, they live their lives like Futurama’s Fry seeing new and amazing underwear, advertisements.

Basically, she sees colors where most don’t, “The little stones jump out at me with oranges, yellows, greens, blues, and pinks.”

Stones. Famously gray, stones. Still, it does explain her work. Like a chef with a geographic and fissured tongue, that is, an increased sense of taste, might use less salt, it seems — or at least I’m assuming — Concetta’s paintings appear muted to be, because, to her, the colors used appear to be more vibrant than, well, I can’t say “than they are” but perhaps than most would see.

The same fantastic articles, like a 2006, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, peace about Susan Hogan. The article explains that neither she, nor they, know if she’s a tetrachromat, but hey, we have column inches to fill so…

She’s an interior decorator who says she “can see gold in one and gray in another and green in another, but my clients can’t tell the difference.”

Hogan would later appear on a 2012 episode of RadioLab. The episode is linked in the show notes, only 26 minutes long and most of it is unnecessary sound effects, cut-off quotes, and windy background noise. Also, at 11:30, if you’re susceptible to ASMR, you’ll want to skip their little demo – there’s a lot of wet-mouth whispering into the mic but very much not in that good Only Fans way. Uhg. And the musical interludes… Mellow Yellow, clever. I see what you did there. I really don’t remember RadioLab being this… kitschy.

Anyway, they talked to Hogan about her color vision and even did a little test with trichromaticly indistinguishable color swatches and Hogan nailed it. Identifying the incredibly subtle differences between them. The hook, however, is that the doctor in the story brought a male friend, who was a painter, who also identified the swatch differences, though without the detail she offered.

I turned the episode off when they moved from tetrachromates, my topic of the day, to the brilliant yellows of Cambodia’s killing fields. So… hard left turn in that episode.

The reason for a male control?

Well, here’s the deal, the genes that enable color sight are, like all fantastic mutations, on the X gene. With two X’s, women have the potential to be tetrachromats. Because as men we have a Y — or as cartoon feminists like to say “an incomplete X” — chromosome, that means men don’t get to be tetrachromats. For the record, women also generally have a better sense of smell and are more likely to dream in color. What they don’t have, are all the genetic deficiencies and hurdles Jordan Peterson and his Craniometry-ilk ascribe to them. Don’t take gender advice from Nazis, I guess, is the take away there, listener, you know who you are.

So, women can be tetrachromats, but how many are?

Most articles I found said that roughly 12% of women have the gene expression for tetrachromacy. Some articles claim that half of all women are tetrachromats. Which is both a wild guess based on a small sample size of women who tested positive for the gene. But having the gene doesn’t mean it’s expressed, or expressed enough to work as described. In 2006 Dr. Jay Neitz, who conducts color vision research with his unnamed-in-every-article-they’re-mentioned-in wife — whose name is also Dr. Neitz, Dr. Maureen Neitz — said that the claim that 25% of people, or half of women, are tetrachromats is inaccurate, the real, practical number, is closer to 2%.

As best as I can tell the 12% number most news outlets hyper-focus on comes from Newcastle University neuroscientist Gabriele Jordan. But… in twenty years of research she has only been able to confirm the condition in one person: “We now know tetrachromacy exists. But we don’t know what allows someone to become functionally tetrachromatic when most four-coned women aren’t.”

So finding one person in 20 years is… not a good sample size or encouraging in that RadioLab-found-3-to-talk-to-in-a-normal-production-cycle kind of way. Turns out you can just do a simple blood test to find out if you’ve got super-sight.

Well, I say super sight and we’re talking about seeing more color, but it doesn’t entirely work that way. The extra cones allow for a higher fidelity color vision, particularly in the yellow-ish areas. Most stories you’ll read with put something like “10 million more colors” in their headlines. And that’s… mathy-true-ish, but kind of dishonest. You still can’t see beyond the 400 to 700-nanometer wavelength. So, no x-ray or heat vision.

Dr. Neitz says it works out to another 100 shades of vision, which when mathed against the average trichromats ability to distinguish 1 million colors, means a tetrachromate can see, again by the numbers, 100 million colors. So 99 million more than average… as long as you don’t think of those extra colors as different or unique. You’ve probably seen the rainbow bar of the visible light spectrum in a science class (or Shea’s notes above). Probably you saw either a gradient bar or a division X many colors the textbook needed to make its point. A Tetrachromate will see essentially the same thing, but with a great gradation or more “in-between” colors. For reference, your standard color blind dude (way more likely to be a guy) is a dichromat or someone with two working cones, can see about 10,000 colors with red and green often being difficult to distinguish.

Unfortunately, that’s not the entire story, otherwise, I would imagine nearly all of our artists would be trichromatic women. And that’s a lot of Art-emisia history to cock-wash. (yeah, Renaissance painter deep cuts!)

Having the genetic potential for tetrachromacy isn’t enough. You also need the Color Theory equivalent of Terrigen Mist. Or as I like to call it, Art School.

The world isn’t designed for tetrachromats. Sure, being able to distinguish more hues is probably great — though in a 2015 interview with The Cut Concetta mentions she gets eye strain easily and often sits with her eyes closed to “block out the noise” — you don’t have a lot of opportunities to enjoy it. Sure, the natural world is pretty but everything humans have made for art, color, imagery, entertainment, you get the idea, was designed for trichromats. The phone you’re listening to this on, despite the cool tech specs, is still just RGB. Even CYMK is just a three-color system with a little extra, practical, jazz.

Creaolya doesn’t make a fourth color and Pantone doesn’t name them.

You could be a tetrachromat — if you’re a lady listener anyway — and not even know it. You might appreciate a sunrise more than your man can but unless you train yourself to see subtle colors, like really get in there and put in the time and effort, you probably won’t make the connection.

That’s why everyone in this story is an artist. Concetta the artist, Susan the interior designer, even Mr. Guy the control was a professional color mixer. Looking at color is nice but like other things you do autonomically, like walking, you can train yourself to do better, as an artsy athlete!

So, do tetrachromats really see 100 million more colors? No. Is tetrachromacy a thing? Yes. And if you work with color or at least practice, it might give you the ability to see 100 million additional, seemingly unique, hues. Which is pretty damn cool.


I’m Shea, and this week I learned that if we recategorized vaginas as “pelvis-mounted semi-automatic baby launchers,” the Republicans would stop regulating them all together.” Before we go I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.

We’d like the extend a special thanks to our newest patron Doom. I assume Victor Von but I haven’t seen any downloads from Latveria.

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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.

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