An interesting set of experiments by scientists from the University of Rochester:
First-ever images of living human retinas have yielded a surprise about how we perceive our world. Researchers at the University of Rochester have found that the number of color-sensitive cones in the human retina differs dramatically among people–by up to 40 times–yet people appear to perceive colors the same way. The findings, on the cover of this week’s journal Neuroscience, strongly suggest that our perception of color is controlled much more by our brains than by our eyes.
Williams [David Williams, Allyn Professor of Medical Optics and director of the Center for Visual Science -ed.] and his research team, led by postdoctoral student Heidi Hofer, now an assistant professor at the University of Houston, used a laser-based system developed by Williams that maps out the topography of the inner eye in exquisite detail. The technology, known as adaptive optics, was originally used by astronomers in telescopes to compensate for the blurring of starlight caused by the atmosphere.
Williams turned the technique from the heavens back toward the eye to compensate for common aberrations. The technique allows researchers to study the living retina in ways that were never before possible. The pigment that allows each cone in the human eye to react to different colors is very fragile and normal microscope light bleaches it away. This means that looking at the retina from a cadaver yields almost no information on the arrangement of their cones, and there is certainly no ability to test for color perception. Likewise, the amino acids that make up two of the three different-colored cones are so similar that there are no stains that can bind to some and not others, a process often used by researchers to differentiate cell types under a microscope.
Each subject was asked to tune the color of a disk of light to produce a pure yellow light that was neither reddish yellow nor greenish yellow. Everyone selected nearly the same wavelength of yellow, showing an obvious consensus over what color they perceived yellow to be. Once Williams looked into their eyes, however, he was surprised to see that the number of long- and middle-wavelength cones–the cones that detect red, green, and yellow–were sometimes profusely scattered throughout the retina, and sometimes barely evident. The discrepancy was more than a 40:1 ratio, yet all the volunteers were apparently seeing the same color yellow.
“Those early experiments showed that everyone we tested has the same color experience despite this really profound difference in the front-end of their visual system,” says Hofer. “That points to some kind of normalization or auto-calibration mechanism–some kind of circuit in the brain that balances the colors for you no matter what the hardware is.”