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Born with an extreme form of color blindness, Neil Harbisson surgically implanted an antenna in his skull that allows him to hear the world in colors. Severe color blindness distorts a person’s perception of the world. In some cases, people can’t see specific colors. A common form of colorblindness prevents people from seeing green. Instead, they see the color brown. So, when people with this type of colorblindness hear the phrase; “the grass is always greener on the other side,” they literally have no idea what that means. Other common forms of colorblindness make it hard to distinguish reddish colors. However, Neil Harbisson color issue hits an extreme level. He is unable to perceive color at all, that is until he had his surgery.

Sounds Like Blue! Color-blind Man Programs Brain to Hear Color

Harbisson’s determination led him to find an alternative way to understand his surroundings. “I was always curious about color because everyone is using it in daily life,” Harbisson says. “I was interested in sensing color not because I wanted to change my sight, but because I wanted to have this element of color in my life.” While he still can’t see color, he can hear it. Colors give off distinct light frequencies. These frequencies interact with the human eye and allow people to know where an object’s color lands on the ROYGBIV spectrum. The antenna in Harbisson’s brain detects these specific light frequencies and identifies the color in front of it. Once the color is identified, he hears a tone that matches a color. For example, when the antenna is in front of the color blue, Harbisson hears the musical note “middle C.”  

After using the device for several months, Harbisson dreams in color. “That was an emotional step for me,” he says. Amazingly enough, the machine trained his brain to permanently associate colors with sound, even when the device is turned off. He hears a series of sounds that let him know what colors he’s perceived while he sleeps.