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Do the eyes have it?

Having recently experienced cataract replacement surgery, I am, more than ever, acutely interested in issues relating to visual accuracy and color perception

As an adolescent, I was disenchanted to read that our color perception is dictated by little elements in our eyes called cones.  I don’t pretend to know how these cones work, other than what I read then, so long ago.  The idea was that the numbers of these tiny structures affected our ability to see colors and which colors we could perceive.

My disenchantment was because it was then clear that color perception had to be highly subjective.  If the number of these tiny elements determined which colors we could perceive then, logically, each person’s ability to perceive colors had to be unique to that person. That meant, in turn, that one could not expect to be able to share a beautiful (or not) color palette with someone else and expect that the other person would be able to perceive what you were trying to share – not with any objective accuracy, anyway.  Some part of me was deeply disturbed by recognizing this.

Later, when I was studying logic in college, I was introduced to the concept of “accidents,” that logical tenet that distinguished between the “essence” of a thing, i.e., the attribute(s) that made it what it was, and these “accidents.”  In formal logic, “accidents” is a word of art that is used to designate those attributes which were merely incidental to the thing, not essential.  They included most aspects of the mere appearance of something, Color was one of these “accidents.”  Having grown up with a serious artist for a Dad, the idea of color as something non-essential was a shock.

Now here I am, decades later, a visual artist having had cataract surgery. I am fascinated with the effect on my vision.  For instance, the cataract of my surgery eye, my right eye, was replaced with a lens that is able to handle vision that ranges from close up through intermediate sights to distant objects. The crystal replacement is also able to ameliorate severe astigmatism, which has been a source of some frustration for years.

But, beyond visual acuity, the surgery has had a significant effect on my color perception.  It turns out that, as we age, our color perception dims, rather like a window that collects dirt over time.  The result is that my color perception in the non-surgery eye has just the slightest yellowing in contrast with the color perception through the fresh lens in the eye from which a cataract was removed. The non-surgery eye sees whites with a slightly creamy overlay, while the surgery eye sees a cooler white.  [Anyone observing my behavior when I don’t know anyone else is watching, will see me winking my eyes alternatively to check this phenomenon.]  The fact is that the colors I see are almost the same in each eye, but not exactly the same.

So, I must accept the fact that, not only can I never convey the exact color palette I am seeing, but my two eyes do not even agree.  Don’t cry for me. The delight in color will remain an exquisite, but private delight, only partially capable of being shared.


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