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Open Access Highly Accessed Research

Sex and vision II: color appearance of monochromatic lights

Israel Abramov124*, James Gordon345, Olga Feldman1 and Alla Chavarga1

Author Affiliations

1 Psychology, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, Brooklyn, NY, 11210, USA

2 Cognition, Brain, and Behavior, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, NY, 10016, USA

3 Psychology, Hunter College, City University of New York, New York, NY, 10065, USA

4 Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, NY, 10016, USA

5 Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, NY, 10003, USA

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Biology of Sex Differences 2012, 3:21  doi:10.1186/2042-6410-3-21

Published: 4 September 2012

Abstract

Background

Because cerebral cortex has a very large number of testosterone receptors, we examined the possible sex differences in color appearance of monochromatic lights across the visible spectrum. There is a history of men and women perceiving color differently. However, all of these studies deal with higher cognitive functions which may be culture-biased. We study basic visual functions, such as color appearance, without reference to any objects. We present here a detailed analysis of sex differences in primary chromatic sensations.

Methods

We tested large groups of young adults with normal vision, including spatial and temporal resolution, and stereopsis. Based on standard color-screening and anomaloscope data, we excluded all color-deficient observers. Stimuli were equi-luminant monochromatic lights across the spectrum. They were foveally-viewed flashes presented against a dark background. The elicited sensations were measured using magnitude estimation of hue and saturation. When the only permitted hue terms are red (R) yellow (Y), green (G), blue (B), alone or in combination, such hue descriptions are language-independent and the hue and saturation values can be used to derive a wide range of color-discrimination functions.

Results

There were relatively small but clear and significant, differences between males and females in the hue sensations elicited by almost the entire spectrum. Generally, males required a slightly longer wavelength to experience the same hue as did females. The spectral loci of the unique hues are not correlated with anomaloscope matches; these matches are directly determined by the spectral sensitivities of L- and M-cones (genes for these cones are on the X-chromosomes). Nor are there correlations between loci of pairs of unique hues (R, Y, G, B). Wavelength-discrimination functions derived from the scaling data show that males have a broader range of poorer discrimination in the middle of the spectrum. The precise values for all the data depend on whether Newtonian or Maxwellian optics were used, but the sex differences were the same for both optical systems.

Conclusion

As with our associated paper on spatio-temporal vision, there are marked sex differences in color vision. The color-appearances we measured are determined by inputs from thalamic neurons (LGN) to individual neurons in primary visual cortex. This convergence from LGN to cortex is guided by the cortex during embryogenesis. We hypothesize that testosterone plays a major role, somehow leading to different connectivities for males and females: color appearance requires a re-combination and re-weighting of neuronal inputs from the LGN to the cortex, which, as we show, depends on the sex of the participant.