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Paradoxical shifts in human color sensitivity caused by constructive and destructive interference between signals from the same cone class


Paradoxical shifts in human color (spectral) sensitivity occur on deep-red (658 nm) background fields. As the radiance of the deep-red background is increased from low to moderate levels, the spectral sensitivity for detecting 15-Hz flicker shifts toward shorter wavelengths, although by more than is predicted by selective chromatic adaptation (e.g., Eisner & MacLeod, 1981; Stromeyer et al., 1987; Stockman et al., 1993). Remarkably, though, at higher background radiances, the spectral sensitivity then shifts precipitously back towards longer wavelengths. Here, we show that both effects are due in large part to destructive and constructive interference between signals generated by the same cone type. Contrary to the conventional model of the human visual system, the M- and L-cone types contribute not just the customary fast signals to the achromatic or luminance pathway, but also slower signals of the same or opposite sign. The predominant signs of the slow M- and L-cone signals change with background radiance, but always remain spectrally opposed (M-L or L-M). Consequently, when the slow and fast signals from one cone type destructively interfere, as they do near 15 Hz, those from the other cone type constructively interfere, causing the paradoxical shifts in spectral sensitivity. The shift in spectral sensitivity towards longer wavelengths is accentuated at higher temporal frequencies by a suppression of fast M-cone signals by deep-red fields.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Andrew Stockman, Institute of Ophthalmology, University College London, 11-43 Bath Street, London EC1V 9EL, UK. E-mail:
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Visual Neuroscience
  • ISSN: 0952-5238
  • EISSN: 1469-8714
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