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What color does the human eye ignore?

The human eye perceives color through specialized cells called cones located in the retina. There are three types of cones that are sensitive to different wavelengths of light – short (blue), medium (green), and long (red). When light hits the cones, signals are sent to the brain which interprets them as color.

But interestingly, the cones are not equally distributed across the retina. There is a small depression near the center of the retina called the fovea where cones are concentrated. This area provides the sharpest vision. Towards the outer edges of the retina, the cone density drops off sharply. This means our color perception is not uniform – it is best at the center and declines towards the periphery.


Due to the unequal distribution of cones, the human eye essentially “ignores” colors in the peripheral visual field. Scientifically speaking, colors are not perceived as vividly and are difficult to distinguish outside the fovea. So the eye does not completely ignore colors in the periphery, but color vision ability is significantly diminished.

This has practical implications. For example, website designers are advised to put important content near the middle of pages, within the foveal zone. Vibrant colors intended to grab attention should also be centered. Towards the edges, muted colors are best since the eye will not perceive them well anyway.

The Fovea and Peripheral Retina

To understand why our eyes ignore peripheral colors, we need to take a close look at cone distribution in the retina:

Retinal Area Cone Density
Fovea 200,000 cones/mm2
Periphery 10,000 cones/mm2

As the table shows, cone density is nearly 20 times higher in the fovea compared to peripheral areas. This makes the fovea extremely color sensitive, while color perception drops off sharply towards the edges.

The high cone density in the fovea also allows us to see fine details clearly. The fovea spans about 5 degrees of vision – 1.5 degrees horizontally and 3.5 degrees vertically. This corresponds to an area about the width of your thumbnail held at arm’s length. Outside this tiny zone, visual acuity and color perception decline rapidly.

Experiments on Peripheral Color Vision

Scientists have experimentally confirmed the decline in color perception from fovea to periphery. In one study, subjects were asked to distinguish between two colors presented at different retinal locations. The results showed:

Retinal Eccentricity Color Discrimination Ability
0 degrees (fovea) Excellent
10 degrees Moderate
20 degrees Poor
30+ degrees Extremely poor

As eccentricity increased, the minimum difference in wavelength subjects could detect between two colors became larger. At 20 degrees from the fovea, color discrimination was badly compromised. Beyond 30 degrees, it was extremely difficult.

So in essence, the periphery is somewhat “color blind” compared to the fovea. The visual system allocates resources to maximize detail and color for the central visual field. But outside this area, color fidelity falls off in order to conserve resources.

Chromatic Aberration Effects

Another reason colors may appear muted in peripheral vision is chromatic aberration of the eye. This is caused by the properties of the lens, which refracts different wavelengths (colors) of light at different angles.

In the fovea, chromatic aberration is minimized by the concave shape and high refractive power of the lens. But towards the edges, images become more dispersed. This makes it harder to perceive colors distinctly, especially shades of red and blue which are most affected.

So in addition to lower cone density, chromatic aberration likely contributes to the poor color discrimination in peripheral vision. The eye essentially ignores subtle color differences that it cannot focus properly on.

Advantages of Peripheral Color Deficiency

While color perception is a disadvantage in peripheral vision, it likely developed this way for good reason. Dedicating resources to high-acuity color vision over a wide visual field would come at significant metabolic expense. The falloff in acuity and color perception towards the periphery conserves substantial neural resources.

The high color sensitivity of the fovea also suits the needs of primates like humans that rely heavily on vision to recognize objects, foods, mates etc. Precise color information is most vital in the central visual field.

So in summary, the relative “color blindness” in peripheral vision is not so much a flaw as a biological adaptation to allocate resources efficiently. The eye foundationally ignores colors outside the fovea because they are less useful for the tasks of primate vision.

Practical Implications

Understanding that peripheral color perception is limited has a number of practical implications:

  • User interfaces and documents should position important colorful elements near the center.
  • Signage should have muted colors in the periphery to avoid distracting drivers.
  • Artwork with vibrant contrasting colors is best appreciated by focusing foveally.
  • Colored lights and signals should be placed centrally if they need to grab attention.

Overall, the uneven distribution of cones in the retina means designers cannot expect colors to be perceived uniformly across the visual field. The eye phylogenetically developed to prioritize color information from the high-acuity foveal region. So in a sense, the periphery is specifically “blind” to the nuances of color that are vital to humans.


Due to the anatomy of the eye, colors presented in peripheral vision are essentially ignored compared to those viewed foveally. The extremely high density of cones in the fovea gives it excellent color sensitivity. But in the periphery, cone density drops off sharply. This results in poorer color discrimination and muted perception.

In addition, chromatic aberration of the lens contributes to the relative “color blindness” in peripheral vision. The eye is simply not tuned to perceive nuanced color differences outside the central visual field.

This peripheral color vision deficiency is not a flaw but an adaptation to dedicate resources to where color information is most useful. Understanding the limitations of peripheral vision has many practical implications for design, safety, art, and more. In summary, not all colors are perceived equally across the visual field due to the inherent emphasis on foveal color in the evolution of human vision.