Being able to see 1 million colors — as most of us can — seems pretty great. Until you find out that there are people like Maureen Seaberg in the world who can see 100 times that. Called tetrachromats, they’re capable of seeing more shades than have names in the English language. M.A.C Cosmetics leveraged Seaberg’s tetrachromatic skills to create a new, moisturizing, satiny-finish lipstick collection called Liptensity, designed to be so pure of color that it’s flattering on innumerable skin tones. The Cut talked to Seaberg about why only women are tetrachromats, the colors she saw in that dress, and how naming a color can help people see it.
How did you find out you had tetrachromacy?
In 2013, I heard a Radiolab report about tetrachromacy. They featured someone who was an interior designer, and the experience she related rang true. After the program ended, I wrote to the doctor, who interviewed me over the phone. He asked if any of the men in my immediate family had color blindness, and I recalled that my only brother has color blindness. He sent me a spit kit, a saliva test. It was a long six weeks as I waited for results.
One day, an email arrived, and he said I had it. You can think about tetrachromacy like this: When you walk into a darkened movie theater, you experience the discomfort of eyes adjusting to the light. That’s the cones — cells in the most concave parts of your eye — going offline. They’re paper-thin, and that’s the group of cells I see more of. Around that cluster is the rods, which are for peripheral and night vision. Those go online when you walk into a movie theater, and it takes five to seven seconds for that to happen.
Do you consider tetrachromacy to be a blessing or a curse?
I do think it’s a blessing. We need to raise awareness of it more. There are probably many more women undergoing the experience I have and not knowing why. People would always say to the right or left of what I said the color of something was. For example, if a friend showed me an unusual gourmet carrot that was red, I would say it’s beet-colored and more purple. Checking with other women with the same genetics, they report similar things.
And only women are tetrachromics?
Isn’t that something? It takes two XX chromosomes. But my doctor says if we don’t destroy ourselves, it could spread to the entire population. He reasons that full-color vision wasn’t common in our primate ancestors, and that only one female old-world monkey mutated to have full-color vision. As they determined through fossil records, her line really thrived. He has a theory that human evolution is dependent on becoming full-color seers. There are people walking around with lung 2.0 or heart 2.0. But I apparently have eyes 2.0.
Since you can see so many colors, does it affect your preferences for colors?
No. But I do notice a difference in the number of colors in the natural world versus those in manufactured, human-made things. I have complete enthusiasm for every color except for yellow. The doctors think that it’s because the extra cone class in tetrachromics is yellow. Normal people have green and blue cones, the same as in television.
Maybe yellow is overstimulating — it’s a little too much for my eyes. Like, an NYC taxicab is too much. It’s almost like when you look at bright sunlight for a little bit and you recoil.
Liptensity in Doe at Balmain’s autumn/winter 2016 show. Photo: Getty Images
Since you see so many colors, how does it affect your everyday approach to choosing colors for yourself?
People often comment when I do wear color how very coordinated it is. But I do like to dress monochromatically; I don’t like prints. I’ll do head-to-toe camel or head-to-toe black. It’s hard to even find blacks that perfectly match each other. Some are jet black, in the way M.A.C’s Liptensity Stallion lipstick is. A jet black is very hard to achieve, because it’s the absence of color. We had to keep perfecting it because we kept seeing other colors that shone through in sunlight and daylight.
You can see up to 100 million colors. But in the English language, are there that many names for colors? How do you describe a color if it’s never been named?
Some people think we need a name for a color in order to see it, and not the other way around. For example, in The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer never uses the color blue as a word. Seas are described as boring and dark. Humanity did not have the ability to see blue until more recently.
The perfect storm for tetrachromacy is having it in your genetics and a lifelong exposure to color — but also having the enhanced vocabulary to name these colors. I found that in the “What color is the dress?” debate. Some people just weren’t seeing it, and some people didn’t have the vocabulary. Tetrachomics saw it as bronze and periwinkle.
I personally am trying to name the colors I see in nature and don’t see in human goods. That’s been fun. I hope to make some sort of color chart. I don’t know how they will appear to normal-sighted people, but at least for my own reference.
How did your special skills help you with creating the Liptensity lipstick shades?
Working with M.A.C, I had 24 shades that I started with. It was my job to tweak them and make them the most beautiful. I used my vision to look very closely at them and see if there were undertones or overtones that could be cleared up. We wanted to make them as pure and clear as possible.
I had a feeling that if we could take out the things not true to the color we were going for, it would be more beautiful on more faces. They would behave more like neutrals. Doe in M.A.C Liptensity was used in every model on the Balmain autumn/winter 2016 runway, on models of every skin tone. It worked on every one. Whereas if there were orange tones, for example, it wouldn’t look right on some girls.
In language, people often associate colors with emotions, saying things like they’re “green with envy.” How does your ability relate to that?
I do actually associate colors with emotions. I also have synesthesia. We all as a society associate color with emotion. Phrases like “green with envy” or “purple with rage”? Somewhere along the line in human history, we agreed upon that. So I think it is a universal trait.