Sunday, July 13, 2014

London Underground Map: On Being Colour Blind


The other day my partner and I were discussing a meeting place in London and he asked (in Hebrew of course) “Could you please remind me which colour is that tube line?”

I had to stop and think, as the answer did not come naturally to me.  While I remember the names of the lines, I do not associate them with their colours on the map. This, I realize, is another manifestation of my colour blindness.

I was not aware of my colour blindness until my late twenties. We were already in the US,  graduate students at a university town in the Midwest. At a regular check–up at the university hospital clinic, the doctor showed me a series of colourful shapes and  then asked: “Who else in your family is colour blind?" "Color blind?  But only men are colour blind.” The doctor agreed that while red/green colour blindness was indeed rare among women, it existed.

 In writing this post I looked for explanations online, and Wiki had a clear answer:

Colour blindness is the inability to differentiate between different colors. The most common type is red-green colour blindness. This occurs in 8 percent of males and 0.4 percent of females. It occurs when either the red or green cones are not present or not functioning properly. People with this problem are not completely unable to see red or green, but often confuse the two colours. This is an inherited disorder and affects men more commonly since the capacity for colour vision is located on the X chromosome. (Women have two X chromosomes, so the probability of inheriting at least one X with normal colour vision is high; men have only one X chromosome to work with. The inability to see any colour, or seeing only in different shades of gray, is very rare.

From this explanation I understand that due to its rareness, color blindness among women was not tested when I was growing up. Moreover, even before I enlisted in the army, when we went through a through physical examination, it remained undetected.

 Throughout the years I learnt to ask specific questions about colors and to consult with people who were not color blind. I never thought about color blindness and art until we lived in Iowa City. Being close to several Amish colonies, I had the privilege of getting to know their beautiful artistic quilt work. An artist told me once of the hypothesis that one reason their colors schemes are so different and striking was because many of them were color blind. I am not sure whether it is true but it is encouraging to think that one can use this disorder to create art.

I often wonder about reaching decisions which are based on isufficent information or partial  knowledge. Being color blind is a good example of not having all the visual information. Thus sitting in London in someone else’s home looking at the paintings on the walls, I remember my own walls back home. Most of my pictures are in black and white. It is not that I don’t appreciate colors, quite the contrary, but when it comes to acquiring art I intuitively choose black and white pictures. Perhaps in this kind of decision, which is private and personal, I do not trust someone else’s eyes, or perhaps I need to feel that this is my level playing field, where at least on the surface, I can see it all and don't miss a thing.

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