For Concetta Antico, the night sky bursts with sapphire and violet; a pink rose is tinged with gold and azure; a stone pathway is a rainbow of oranges, yellows, greens, blues, and pale reds.
Antico has “super vision,” or tetrachromacy, a rare genetic condition that allows her to see nearly 100 million colours. Compare that with the one million colours that people with normal vision can see.
While super-vision isn’t unusual in animals – species of birds choose mates based on subtle colour differences even into the ultraviolet range, and insects see the colour wavelengths on a much greater spectrum than the human eye can see – it’s estimated that the condition affects only 1% of people.
“I see more nuanced shades and more colours in low light,” Antico told the BBC. “If you and I look at a leaf, I may see magenta running around the outside of the leaf or turquoise in certain parts where you would just see dark green,” Antico says. “Where the light is making shadows on the walls, I’m seeing violets and lavenders and turquoise. You’re just seeing gray.”
“She truly does see the world differently than we do,” says neurologist Wendy Martin, who first suggested Antico research her particular perspective.
As a child in Australia, Antico knew she had a unique point of view. At seven, she painted vivid reproductions of works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Monet in oils. Now she makes her living as a painter and art instructor in San Diego, where she moved with her husband, Jason Pizzinat, in the mid-1980s. The colours she sees in Southern California’s flora and fauna and her memories of Australia make up her vast palette.
Antico readily volunteers for scientific studies, hoping that research on her will also lead to a better understanding of colour blindness, which affects the vision of her 12-year-old daughter. Colour blindness can be caused by the same genetic mutation as tetrachromacy. (Neither of her sons has the mutation.)
Despite Antico’s enhanced visual experience, there’s a downside: sensory overload.
“When I wake up, I stare out the window for a little while because I can’t help but see all the colours outside. I see all the colours in the wood floor as I’m walking to the bathroom. I notice all the colours in the toothpaste. Downstairs, the fruit in the bowl [is bursting with colour].”
The grocery store is “a nightmare”: down every aisle, “it’s [an assault] of colour.”
Perhaps as a result, Antico’s favourite colour is white. “It is so peaceful and restful for my eyes.”