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What is it like to see the world in 100 million colors?

Byron Bay artist Concetta Antico is one of the few people in the world who can tell you.

That’s because Mrs. Antico is what’s known as a tetrachromatic. It means you have a fourth color receptor, or cone cell, on your retina, compared to the usual three.

Scientists have long known that some animals, such as goldfish or the zebra finch bird found in central Australia, have the gift of seeing colors in a much more dazzling variety than humans.

But it wasn’t until 2010 that a British woman was identified as the first human tetrachromatic.

Since then, some other women, including Ms. Antico, have been tested and found to have the gift of tetrachromacy.

Growing up in Sydney as a child, Ms. Antico said that she was always fascinated with color.

“I was immersed in art. I was painting in oils at the age of five, that’s when I got my first easel.

“I was copying impressionist paintings all through (primary) school. That was what I did on the weekend.

“I was the colored girl. I was the girl who put five colors of nail polish on my hand or various colors of makeup on my face; everything to me was color, color, color.”

A painting by Concetta Antico while watching the landscape portrayed.
A painting by Concetta Antico while watching the landscape portrayed. (Supplied: Concetta Antico)

Ms. Antico would become a professional artist and teacher specializing in oil painting whose dazzlingly colorful artwork is highly sought after.

However, it was a colorblind student who gave Ms. Antico her first hint that she might be seeing the world differently from everyone else.

“I had a student send me a paper on tetrachromat. He said, ‘I think you could have this.’

“Note that he is color blind, so I was thinking of course that I see more colors than you do.

“I read the article and thought it was fascinating, but I dismissed it and didn’t think much more about it.”

A few years later, another student of Ms. Antico, who was also a research scientist and neurologist, sent her some more research papers on tetrachromacy.

Ms. Antico said that she still remembered the exact moment she started reading what her student had sent her.

“It was November 2012. I had the flu and drank chamomile tea. My kids would run and I would make pancakes before school.

“I opened it and read the first paragraph. It said, ‘Women who have the tetrachromacy genotype also have the potential to have colorblind female offspring.’

Just a few years earlier, Ms Antico’s daughter, then eight years old, had been diagnosed as color blind, a rarity when most color blind people are male.

“I was a little stunned and thought well, maybe I am.”

“The world is a beautiful place,” says Ms. Antico. (Supplied: Concetta Antico)

That same day, Ms Antico sent an email to the researchers who had written the article.

Within 20 minutes, a professor from the University of Washington called Ms. Antico, who was living in San Diego at the time, back.

“He was on the line asking if he could send me vials via UPS for me to spit.”

Tests confirmed that Ms. Antico had the correct genotype for tetrachromacy.

Another explosive moment came when the Japanese documentary makers were filming in their art classroom.

“One of them said to 12 of my students who were sitting at their easels: ‘Raise your hand if your teacher sometimes points to colors that you cannot see.’

“All 12 raised their hands.

“As for being aware that what I’m seeing is significantly different from anyone else, that was the first time they really confirmed it.”

A month and a half ago, Ms. Antico opened an art gallery in Byron Bay, after moving from the United States to Australia, where she grew up.

Mrs. Antico has been painting with oil since she was five years old.
Mrs. Antico has been painting with oil since she was five years old. (Pippa Vickery)

His art, which often depicts scenes from nature, provides a possible glimpse into his colorful world.

The side-by-side photos of her paintings, facing the scene in real life, show the representation of Mrs. Antico with flashes of color invisible to the common eye.

“I don’t know what most people see. From what I understand, most people see things in a much more uniform or flat way,” Antico said.

“When I look at something, there is vibration and color.

“If something is green, you might see dark green or light green. But I see maybe 500 greens where you see three or four greens, and other colors ringing around it due to the light.

“The world is a beautiful place and I think part of that is reflected in my art.”

‘Ask anyone I’ve lived with, they think I’m crazy’

But being tetrachromatic has its downsides. For example, the supermarket can be a nightmare of color.

“I don’t like going to the Woolies or the malls, it’s too much,” Antico said.

Ms. Antico said she was also “very, very picky” about color.

“Things better match, and when I say they match, it’s not like someone wears a red dress with red lipstick and red shoes and thinks it matches.

“Most people when I see them I think, ‘Oh my God, it doesn’t fit. One is red is a little more brown, the other is a little more orange.’

Little things, like specks of dirt or dust on the ground, jump up at it.

“I am very anal and particular. You can ask anyone I have lived with, they think I am crazy. I take it to a whole new level because I am seeing everything. Not only am I seeing concrete, I am seeing every pattern of light or darkness in Him I’m looking at every little speck of dirt.

“There are certain colors like red, yellow and orange that I don’t wear. I wear a lot of black because I love it and it’s easy on the eyes. I love pastels and whites in my house.”

Ms. Antico said that she could often also immediately see if someone was sick.

“I can usually tell if someone is not feeling well. I can tell when their skin is turning a little gray or if they are flushed.”

How many tetrachromatics could there be?

Dr. Kimberly Jameson, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, has investigated Ms. Antico’s case for several years.

In the same way that a genetically gifted champion sprinter might recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers due to endless practice sessions, Ms. Antico appears to have honed her superior color vision through years of artistic training, suggests Dr. Jameson.

“For people like Concetta, who have genetic potential for additional classes of photopigment, it is possible that if nurtured, they could develop a sharper sense of color than someone who does not have the potential,” said Dr. Jameson.

Dr. Jameson said that functional tetrachromats can gravitate toward creative careers that utilize their unique perception of color.

“They may be drawn to art careers or design careers or work for companies of color,” he said.

“In my experience, they seem to gravitate toward these careers because of a kind of dramatic interest in color.”

One of Mrs. Antico's colorful paintings.
One of Mrs. Antico’s colorful paintings. (Supplied: Concetta Antico)

In general, women are more likely to be potential tetrachromats because men do not carry the two X chromosome genotypes that make it possible.

Studies suggest that about 12 percent of women carry the genotype that allows them to have a fourth kind of cone on the retina.

The actual number could be higher, as other genetic pathways may allow for other pathways to tetrachromacy, Dr. Jameson said.

However, most women who have the correct genotype may not see the world differently.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion that you have the genetic potential and then end up being a functional tetrachromatic,” Dr. Jameson said.

Studying tetrachromacy provides a window into the world of human evolution, Dr. Jameson said.

“Tetrachromacy may be due to a mutation that has found a way to stay and it is not something in the female population that causes a disability,” she said.

“It is a possible configuration of human visual processing that people previously did not consider viable.”

“It is fascinating to know that this possibility exists and forces us to be a little more open about what we might think is happening as humans are still evolving.

“We have not yet reached the zenith of our evolution, and the variations in the photopigment genes show us that some visual processing flexibility is possible.”

Contact reporter Emily McPherson at [email protected]

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