by Danielle Nadin
You try not to stare or laugh as a man and a woman bicker over whether the shirt that hangs between them is red or salmon. Martha Stewart and Debbie Travis look on in silence from where their posters are displayed in the paint department at Canadian Tire, as your mother comes to the conclusion that your father is color blind and should not be allowed to pick out paint swatches for the new bathroom. Because of course, women are better at matching clothes and decorating rooms… right? We’ve all heard some variation of these stereotypes, and most of us recognize them as nothing more than that. But could there be some scientific evidence to back up the seemingly preposterous claim that men and women actually see things differently on a physiological level?
Many neuroscientists are exploring this question. In the 1980s, advances were made in the study of cone cells, which are the photoreceptors at the back of our eyes that respond to different wavelengths of light. There are generally three types of cones – long, medium and short-wavelength – that can detect red, green and blue pigments. The colors we perceive are mixes of these three primary colors.
It was discovered that some women, quite a few, in fact, actually had four types of cones. How was this advantageous? It was hard to test, as looking for the amount of cones in someone’s eye requires actually removing the eye from its socket and not many people would be willing to participate in such a study. Instead, scientists Kimberly Jameson, Susan Highnote, and Linda Wasserman used genetic probability to gather test subjects. Their test groups included average men and women with three photopigments, as well as a group of women with four photopigments and a group of color-impaired men with only two photopigments. It was shown that women with four photopigments had a significant advantage at perceiving color. For example, they were able to discern 10 bands of color within a ray of light, where average men and women saw approximately 7 and two-pigmented males saw only 5.
Another study conducted by Israel Abramov, of the Brooklyn College of psychology, concluded that males require a slightly longer wavelength of light than females to perceive the same color. Longer wavelengths typically generate warmer colors. This means that what a man sees as red may appear more like orange to a woman. The same goes for green, which men will be more likely to see with a yellowish tinge.
While his study showed that women were better at distinguishing between shades, men seemed to excel at perceiving fine detail and rapidly changing stimuli, such as flashing lights.
Though the causes of this difference between the sexes are highly up for debate, it is believed that they may be a result of evolution. Hunter-gatherer prehistoric gender roles may have had an influence on how we see today. Women, who were usually the gatherers, capable of spotting and differentiating different kinds of berries would have had an advantage. Men, who were assigned the role of hunting, could benefit from the ability to spot fast-moving prey. It remains to be seen if these differences in color vision have any significant impact on how we perceive and interact w