A World Without Blue

Me wearing BluBlockers. Right: Blue-blocked simulation.

I recently re-discovered classic BluBlocker sunglasses, and wondered what would happen if I wore them around the clock. I’ve been wearing them for nearly three weeks.

My mind sees a “Phantom Blue”

Blue blocker glasses, originally developed to protect astronauts’ eyes in space, have amber lenses that remove blue light as well as ultraviolet light.

But, like with a phantom limb, my brain tries to re-create the experience of blue.

Look only at the photo on the right. Without the comparison photo, the lack of a single blue pixel isn’t obvious. The sky and water can still be read as blue.

Google image search for “rainbows”. Right: Blue-blocked simulation.

This happens with anything whose blueness I know for sure. Like the sky. A spray sunscreen bottle from Walgreens. A municipal trash can. The bar at the top of a Facebook page. Even with the glasses, blue can still seem blue to me.

Ikea bag and blue-blocked simulation.

This makes sense. Just because the body doesn’t perceive something, doesn’t mean the mind doesn’t do its best to repair the fabric of continuous consciousness. The phenomenon is called “color constancy“.

It happens from wearing sunglasses, looking through tinted windows, or seeing a colorful thing in very low light. When we know something is a certain color, our eyes adjust.

Case in point: the famous blue/black and white/gold “dress”. 

I learn to adapt like a color blind person

What I once knew as blue has split into green, grey, black, or white.

A bright blue swimming pool in the sun becomes bright green. Darker blues are greenish grey or grey.

Very light blue looks white, and darker navy (e.g., dark blue jeans) looks black.

A knife in an extremely common shade of blue. Right: Blue-blocked simulation.

Blue is an extremely common color for man-made objects like books, clothes, buildings, and furniture. When I see unusual shades of green on an object I’ve never seen before, I’m nearly sure it’s blue.

This pen’s kimono could be any color, but the shade of green in the blue-blocked simulation at right is uncommon.

Color blind people do this too: even though they may see a color differently, they learn to correctly identify the color name. And like color blindness, other colors are affected.

Orange looks like pink. A friend brought me a pink pen as gift, and hours later I found out it was orange.

Winchester mystery house pen. Right: Blue-blocked simulation.

Purple separates into red/pink and brown. I had to use context clues to figure out that “the purple line” on a map was one that looked totally red to me. I distrust my judgement on pinkish flowers, suspecting purple.

Purple pea flowers. Right: blue-blocked simulation.

When I went to use the yellow highlighter function on my computer, and found it did nothing, I thought it was malfunctioning.  But it turns out that with the blue blockers, I can’t see pale yellow at all.

Smiley-face stickers. Right: blue-blocked simulation.

My brain “white balanced” the world to look so that white looked white through the sunglasses’ amber hue, and yellow is whitened along with it.

It’s changed the patterns of my daily life

The Pacific ocean at mid-day. Right: blue-blocked simulation.

The natural world is full of blue. Without it, new daily rhythms emerge.

For example, I usually don’t enjoy being outside between 10am and 3pm: the light is too bright, and its angle unflattering, like an overhead fluorescent light in a giant college dorm room.

Afternoon swim in Tomales Bay. Right: Blue-blocked simulation

But now that I’ve been wearing blue blockers, standing in a ray of mid-day sunlight is like being bathed in liquid gold: stronger than evening light, and incredibly warm to the skin as well as the eyes.

Blue-blocked simulation of warm glow of iPhone’s flashlight.

Nights feel old-fashioned. The flashlight on my phone looks as warm as a candle flame, and car headlights and new LED street lamps, whose hard white-blue light I usually don’t like, now look yellow-orange.

Until the recent past, humans didn’t experience blue lights at night. Electronic screens, which emit blue light and can confuse the circadian clock, disrupt sleep. On the flip side, blue light early in the day can treat seasonal depression.

On the first night, I did notice that my body was very relaxed in bed, and this seems to have held steady. But it’s hard to say for sure that the glasses are responsible.

Twilight in my backyard. Right: blue-blocked simulation.

All day I look forward to twilight. Without blue light, the sky–and the light it radiates through windows and on people’s faces–is completely pink.

I’ve gotten used to it

I forget I have the glasses on. My food, the apps on my phone, the day’s trees and flowers, the night’s headlights and neon: none of it looks unusual anymore.

Time lapse dance with blue square. Performed on my second day of wearing blue blockers. Video by Brian Brooks

The phrase “you get used to it”  has a bittersweet ring, like getting something you romanticized only to have the novelty wear off, or being forced to accept to something unacceptable. I imagine what it might be like if I could never see blue again, and had to get used to it permanently.

In this case, taking the glasses off, and watching as blue floods back over everything, will be what’s interesting. “You can always come back,” says Bob Dylan in his 2001 song Mississippi, “but you can’t come back all the way”.