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The Prism of Perception

<span style="font-size: 1.5rem;">Look to your right.<br />
Describe the first object you see in five words.<br /><br />
What kinds of descriptors did you use? At least one was likely related to color. And that’s not surprising—we're incredibly attuned to color. We color-code everything from street signs to electrical wires. We've even developed traditions for clothing color for events, like weddings and funerals.</span>

For all the emphasis we place on color, humans perceive a pretty limited range of the light spectrum. We know that “light waves occur along an electromagnetic spectrum according to their wavelengths and energy.”1When these waves hit our retinas, specialized photoceptor cells convert this light into electrical signals sent along our optic nerves to our brains. Our brains then translate those signals into our visual understanding of the world.

The visible light spectrum for humans is roughly 390nm (nanometers) to 700nm.2 We perceive the former as violet and the latter as red. But other species can perceive much more of the electromagnetic spectrum, sensing longer wavelength light, like ultraviolet rays, and higher wavelength light, like infrared rays. Many blood-sucking animals, like vampire bats and bed bugs, rely on infrared light to home in on their prey. Mosquitos are perhaps the most notorious infrared-sensing species. New studies suggest that they find hosts by detecting changes in carbon dioxide levels and then target their prey using infrared vision.3

Optics: a soap bubble exhibiting interference colors. Colour mezzotint by M. Rapine, c. 1883, after B. Desgoffe. Image courtesy Wellcome Collections.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, in terms of both light sensitivity and size, are reindeer. They are one the few mammals that can see ultraviolet light. This likely is an adaptation related to their arctic environment, as snow reflects up to 90% of UV light. When researchers used a UV-sensitive camera to study the reindeer’s environment, they found that many things within this environment absorb ultraviolet light.4 Lichen, a popular food source, absorbs UV light. So too does urine and fur - common signs of predators. Appearing dark against the light-reflecting surface of the snow, the ultraviolet-sensitive eyes of reindeer can easily discern these objects in their environment, helping them more readily identify signs of danger and more easily find sustenance.

Some species can also perceive polarized light (light that is vibrating on the same plane), which we only perceive as glare unless we use specialized lenses. Many butterflies rely on polarized light to attract and identify potential mates, including the common bluebottle butterfly. While its name may sound mundane, this butterfly from the Australasia region boasts an impressive 15 different types of photoreceptor cells.5

While being short of funds, Van Gogh determined the best way to hone his skills was to produce self-portraits explaining, "I purposely bought a good enough mirror to work from myself, for want of a model." He studied color theory, learning that complementary colors intensified one another. He started mixing darker tones, but didn't find the brilliance that he was looking for until, having moved to Paris, he saw a ceiling mural by Eugène Delacroix. It is in Paris, that he painted this self-portrait, Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, in 1887. July 5, 1901. To make this even more interesting, some believe that Van Gogh suffered from protanopia, the most common form of color blindness.

Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In contrast, humans have two broad types of photoreceptors (a number that sounds downright measly in comparison), rods and cones. Rods help us see in low-light conditions and grayscale, and cones help us see color. We have rods, which help us see in low-light conditions and grayscale, and cones, which help us see color. Our cones are sensitive to three types of light: red (accounting for roughly 60% of our 6 million cones), green (30%), and blue (10%).6The common bluebottle butterfly has cells that are analogous to rods and cones. Scientists are still unraveling the sensitivities of their photoreceptors but know they can see ultraviolet light and polarized light. They believe these butterflies have also developed vision sensitivity to slight variations in color that may be related to mating.5

Mouse retina, Freya Mowat.

This confocal micrograph shows the retina of a one-month-old mouse. The retina, as the photoreceptive organ of the eye, is composed of neuronal cells that take in and transmit information, converting that information to signals that the brain can interpret. "Green staining highlights glial cells, which act as neuronal supporting cells and produce myelin, the protective conductive layer that surrounds the axons of the neurons. The red fluorescently labeled protein marks astrocytes, star-shaped glial cells that provide nutrients to developing neurons and regulate neuronal activity. The blue fluorescence marks cell nuclei."

Image courtesy Wellcome Collection.

Studying other species’ vision and light perceiving capabilities can help us develop new technology. By replicating the visual data points of some animals, we may be able to produce cameras that are more sensitive and better able to perform in unusual conditions, perhaps giving us the tools we need to better understand the colorful world around us.


1 Cowan, Angela. “Infrared Vision.National Geographic Society, 20 May 2022.

2 Hadhazy, Adam. “What Are the Limits of Human Vision?” BBC Future, BBC, 27 July 2015.

3 van Breugel, Floris, et al. “Mosquitoes Use Vision to Associate Odor Plumes with Thermal Targets.” Current Biology : CB, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 17 Aug. 2015.

4 Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. “Reindeer See a Weird and Wonderful World of Ultraviolet Light.” ScienceDaily, 29 May 2011.

5 Morell, Virginia. “This Butterfly Has Extreme Color Vision.” Science, 8 Mar. 2016.

6 "Cones.” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 19 Dec. 2018.

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