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Why is everything gray now?

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Have you noticed that everything seems to be looking a little more gray lately? The colors around us appear duller, and even the brightest reds, greens and blues seem muted. If you feel like you’re living life in black and white, you’re not alone. There are a few possible explanations for why everything seems to be graying out.

Pollution and Smog Dims Colors

One major reason colors appear duller is due to increased pollution and smog in the atmosphere. Tiny particles and gases in the air scatter and absorb light, which distorts the way we perceive colors. Places with high levels of air pollution often take on a grayish hue because of all the haze in the sky. Over time, people living in these areas can get used to the washed out, grayish surroundings.

Studies have shown that people exposed to more air pollution have a harder time distinguishing between similar colors. One experiment found that people in Mexico City, known for its smog problem, struggled to tell the difference between purple and blue hues. Those living in cleaner air environments had a much easier time with the color differentiation test.

So if your area seems grayer lately, increased pollution may be partly to blame. Smoggy skies scatter more light, creating that gloomy, faded look.

Aging Eyes See Less Vibrant Color

If you’ve noticed your vision getting more drab as you age, it’s not just in your head. Our eyes undergo changes as we get older that literally make the world appear more gray.

The lenses in our eyes gradually yellow and stiffen with age. This filtering effect reduces the amount of blue light that reaches the retina. Since we need blue light to properly perceive colors, this results in colors looking more muted and dull.

Also, the cornea and lens become less transparent. This reduces visual contrast, making everything seem more washed out.

Age Effects on Color Perception
20s-30s Peak color vision
40s-50s Yellowing of the lens begins; reduced blue light reaching retina
60s+ Significant yellowing and reduced retinal illumination; loss of vibrancy and intensity of colors

As seen in the table above, our color perception deteriorates significantly as we age. The world is not actually getting more gray – our eyes are just seeing it that way.

Digital Devices Use Different Color Displays

Another reason your world may seem increasingly monochromatic is that you’re looking at it through grayscale digital screens. Most digital devices, like smartphones, tablets and e-readers, use different display technology than old CRT or print media.

LED and OLED screens have a more limited color gamut and use RGB pixels instead of the CMYK used for print. This reduces how vibrantly they can reproduce colors. Their emissions are also weighted towards blue, which our aging eyes interpret as more gray. Staring at these grayscale screens all day can make the real world seem drab and desaturated too.

Print magazines and photos viewed under natural light contain a wider spectrum of wavelengths and look more vivid to our eyes. So if you spend all day looking at your phone and computer, then glance outside, the contrast makes the real world seem colorless. Our visual system adapts to the limited range of hues displayed digitally.

Lifestyle Changes Reduce Color Exposure

Our modern lifestyles tend to expose us to less colorful stimuli than in the past. This relative sensory deprivation can make the world seem more gray.

Think about how much time people spend inside now, often under artificial fluorescent lighting. This lighting has a very limited color spectrum compared to sunlight. Staring at artificial light all day makes our eyes adapt to that smaller range of hues. Then when we go outside, the diversity of colors seems overwhelming.

Also, many offices and homes have adopted more neutral color schemes of whites, blacks and grays. Bland, monotone environments provide less color stimulation for our visual system. Our eyes adjust to this reduced color range, so that when we encounter brighter, more vivid hues, they seem jarring.

Staying indoors more and looking at screens prevents the eyes from fully experiencing the spectrum of colors in nature. This sensory deprivation essentially dulls our color perception.

Mood and Emotions Affect Color Perception

Our moods and emotions can literally change the way we see the world. When feeling down or depressed, people commonly report that colors seem more muted and washed out. On the other hand, when we’re happy, colors may appear brighter and more vivid.

Research has found links between mood disorders like anxiety, depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and reduced color perception. The brain chemicals and pathways that regulate our emotions also influence how our visual system processes color.

Mood State Effects on Color Perception
Depression Gray, drab; muted colors
Mania/hypomania Bright, vivid colors
Anxiety Visual noise; difficulty discriminating colors

So if you’ve been feeling blue lately, the grayer world you’re seeing may be a reflection of your inner state. As your mood improves, your color perception may rebound as well.

Reduced Contrast Sensitivity

The ability to discern slight differences in luminance and brightness between adjacent areas is called contrast sensitivity. This visual skill diminishes with age and certain medical conditions. Loss of contrast sensitivity makes scenes appear flat, washed out and monotonous.

Since you need good contrast sensitivity to see nuances between colors, reduced ability makes hues seem muted and indistinct. Subtle shade variations get lost, flattening the visual field into a gray blur.

Eye disorders like cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration all undermine contrast sensitivity. Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis also impair it. So if your contrast detection is declining, the world will increasingly seem devoid of color variety and vibrancy.

Color Blindness

Roughly 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women have some degree of color blindness. This results from genetic defects in the photoreceptor cones that detect color in the retina. If you have an undiagnosed color vision deficiency, you may perceive the world as more gray and colorless.

The most common form is red-green color blindness, which makes it hard to distinguish these hues. As a result, reds, greens and browns all end up looking muted and grayish. Complete color blindness, or achromatopsia, is very rare, but causes people to see everything as shades of gray.

So in summary, if you think the saturation setting got turned down on planet Earth, any of these factors could be responsible: increased pollution/smog, aging eyes and visual system, lifestyle changes, emotions, impaired contrast sensitivity, color blindness, or some combination. The world itself is just as vibrant, but our flawed human apparatus for perceiving it has its limitations.


While it may seem like the world is becoming more monotonous and colorless, in reality, this “fading” effect is mainly produced by changes in our visual systems and environment. Aging eyes see a more limited color range. Pollution washes the sky of hue variety. Lifestyle and mood rob us of colorful stimuli. Loss of contrast sensitivity flattens our perception. Ultimately the problem is not with the world itself, but with how we perceive it. Making positive changes to improve our physical and mental health can help restore some of that lost color and brightness.