Alexandra Breines
Alexandra Breines

What It's Like to See Pink for the First Time

Alexandra Breines
Alexandra Breines

Being colorblind comes with its fair share of headaches: We can’t become pilots, often need help matching articles of clothing, and struggle to perceive traffic lights from afar. Still, the biggest hurdle might be fielding questions like: “How is what you see different from what I see?”

That's one I've heard all my life; it's usually followed by ad hoc tests of my ability (or inability) to perceive the hues of nearby objects. While I’ve begrudgingly entertained the latter, I’ve never been able to adequately answer the question about how exactly my sight differs from the average person’s. Until now.

This epiphany, to put it romantically—and hey, I just saw pink for the first time, so I’m allowed to get a little rhapsodic here—came about via the good graces of colorblindness-correcting glasses from En Chroma.

Michael Arbeiter (left) and a friend. Photo by Alexandra Breines.


WHAT IS COLORBLINDNESS, EXACTLY?

A common misconception is that colorblindness has to do with an insufficient supply of rod and cone cells in the eye. It’s actually only the cones that play a part in colorblindness, and the issue isn’t with quantity—even severe sufferers boast the standard 6 or 7 million—but of these cells’ behavior.

All cone cells are armed with molecules called photopigments, which absorb light particles, i.e. photons, allowing for the interpretation of color. The cones in the eye of a typical viewer separate into three types, each responsible for taking in different lengths of light waves: L-cones perceive long-wavelength light, which translates chiefly to the color red; M-cones perceive medium-wavelength light, which translates chiefly to green; and S-cones perceive small-wavelength light, which translates chiefly to blue. The countless combinations of these kinds of waves hitting the eye at different volumes result in the million different colors that the average person observes over the span of his or her life—or even in a single day.

The cones in someone with colorblindness don't distinguish between light waves quite as well. For most, the problem is one of egregious overlap of wave absorption within a single cone. When an L-cone takes in too much green light, or an M-cone too much red, the eye will have problems differentiating between these colors. This results in a number of difficulties, including the classification of certain objects’ colors and the distinction between disparately colored objects as just that.

In much rarer cases, a severely colorblind viewer’s cones will lack altogether the ability to take in certain types of color waves. In my case though—and in that of 80 percent of colorblind individuals—the condition is not quite this dire, and as such, is not beyond the influence of modern science. Specialized lenses in glasses En Chroma help a colorblind eye to better discriminate between, for instance, long- and medium-wavelength light, enabling a more consistent and vivid distinction of greens from reds.

FROM NO GREEN TO ELECTRIC PINK

It was after taking a colorblindness test on the company’s website that I learned En Chroma’s glasses would work for me. Like many I’d taken before, the test featured a collection of slides, each depicting an arrangement of differently colored circles that displayed the image of a number. Depending on the arrangement, it was varyingly difficult to make out the figure in the picture. I took the test a handful of times, yielding results between moderate, strong, and extreme severity of a type of red-green colorblindness that En Chroma calls “deutan” (after deuteranopia, a variety of color vision deficiency affecting green photoreceptors).

It sounds more like a science fiction race than an optical disorder, but the label refers to anyone suffering from an abnormality in the M-cone. Reading through the website, I discovered the alternative diagnosis of “protan” (after protanopia), a type of red-green colorblindness referring to an abnormality in the L-cone. Though protans too could reap the benefits of En Chroma glasses, the site suggested that the lenses would have the most observable and immediate effects on a moderate or strong deutan user. I decided to give them a shot.

Ultimately, the glasses did much more than just better separate my greens from reds; they allowed for the appreciation of whole new shades. I could see multiple colors on a single leaf, a sunlit cloud contrasted with the midday sky, and in a neighbor's flower bed, my very first glimpse of true pink, which jumped electrically from every petal.

Photo by Alexandra Breines.

Not everything was transformed when I wore the glasses. I met many a floral arrangement, t-shirt, or graffiti mural that I still had trouble deciphering, or didn’t seem to be any different from what I saw with the naked eye. But there was plenty to revel in. Alongside my discovery of pink, one highlight was my first-ever sighting of the green, yellow, and red of a common traffic light. To me, it had always looked like one white light and two near-identical splotches of orange.

"HOW IS WHAT YOU SEE DIFFERENT FROM WHAT I SEE?"

But the very best thing is that I can finally answer that question—because now I can actually see the difference. So listen up, every friend, classmate, and co-worker who has ever asked: Here's my answer.

The next time you look upon a rose, sunset, or green street sign, imagine the object muted, as if it had been filtered through a few layers of colorless haze. What you’d wind up with is an object whose color is far less bright and vibrant—less alive, really—but less pronounced as well. It would lack intricacies like shading, rendering it one vague hue. You’d likely not even be able to guess exactly what color it is supposed to be. In fact, the color might even be too reliant on a certain specificity for me, without the glasses, to ever see it all.

Yes, that sounds like a bummer. (Actually, now that I know what I'm missing, my vision deficiency is more of a bummer than I ever realized.) The good news is, the science behind the lenses continues to be refined. Alongside En Chroma, many companies are developing glasses, contact lenses, cameras, apps, video games, and other digital programs to make life easier for the 280 million men and 1.7 million women worldwide that suffer from some degree of colorblindness. Scientists are researching how street lights, public maps, key cards, and household electronics can be altered to better accommodate the chromatically impaired. Maybe one day there won't be a difference between what you and I see.   

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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A Baby's Cries Might Hint at What the Child Will Sound Like as an Adult
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Babies may be incapable of talking, but at just a few months old, they've already developed many of the characteristics that will one day make their speaking voice distinct. That's the takeaway from a new study, reported by The New York Times, in which a team of bioacoustic researchers found that you can tell what infants will sound like at age 5 by analyzing their cries.

For their study, published in the journal Biology Letters [PDF], the researchers recorded the voices of 15 French children 4 to 5 years old. They then compared the clips to the children's "mild discomfort cries" recorded when they were 2 to 5 months old. The results showed that a baby's voice can be used to predict 41 percent of the variances they will have in their vocal pitch at age 5.

Other studies have suggested that what our voices sound like when we're young is a strong indicator of what they will sound like later on—even after puberty changes our vocal cords. A boy's voice pitch at age 7 can predict up to 64 percent of the distinguishing features his voice will have as an adult.

The study authors write that many of these variances may develop before childhood, and potentially in utero: "These observations suggest that inter-individual differences in [voice pitch] arise early in life and are largely unaffected by puberty, and raise the possibility that [pitch] may even be determined before birth."

The most important markers that determine pitch are the length, size, and tension of our vocal folds. But those aren't the only determinants: Environmental factors like smoking, pollution, and climate can affect how our voices sound as well, though these changes are usually temporary.

[h/t The New York Times]

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