A Woman With “Super Vision” on What It’s Like to See Almost 100 Million Colors

Updated: Apr. 16, 2016

Where you see only gray, Concetta Antico sees violets and lavenders and turquoise.

may 2015 WIL colorsSilja Goetz for Reader's DigestFor 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 colors. Compare that with the one million colors people with normal vision can see.

While super vision isn’t unusual in animals—a few species of birds choose mates based on subtle color differences in feathers, and some insects can see color wavelengths that flowers reflect—it’s estimated that the condition affects only 1 percent of human beings.

“I see more nuanced shades and more colors in low light,” says Antico. “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 has studied Antico’s case.

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 an art instructor in San Diego, where she moved with her husband, Jason Pizzinat, in the mid-1980s. The colors she sees in Southern California’s flora and fauna make up her vast palette.

Antico readily volunteers for scientific studies, hoping that research on her will also lead to a better understanding of color blindness, which affects the vision of her 12-year-old daughter. Color blindness can be caused by the same genetic mutation as tetrachromacy. “I want everyone to realize how beautiful the world is,” she says. (Neither of her sons has the mutation.)

Despite Antico’s enhanced visual experience, there’s a downside to full-spectrum vision: sensory overload. “When I wake up, I stare out the window for a little while because I can’t help but see all the colors outside,” Antico told the BBC. “I see all the colors in the wood floor as I’m walking to the bathroom. I notice all the colors in the toothpaste. Downstairs, the fruit in the bowl [is bursting with color].”

The grocery store is “a nightmare,” Antico continued. Down every aisle, “it’s [an assault] of color.”

Perhaps as a result, Antico says her favorite color is white. “It is so peaceful and restful for my eyes.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest