Late last month, the internet was buzzing about an image of a dress. The passionate debate about whether the dress was blue and black or gold and white drew wide attention, even engaging the likes of Taylor Swift and John Boehner. Ultimately, the confusion was attributed by some to the lighting of the photograph. This is only partly true. The science behind the varying perceptions is complex, fascinating, and perhaps a bit disconcerting.
Briefly, the process of color perception is as follows: light, comprised of wavelengths of various sizes, makes its way through the lens of eye to the retina. The retina is lined with photoreceptors called rods and cones. Lower levels of light are processed by the rods, which allows us to make our way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. On the other hand, cones allow us to perceive color, and are stimulated by higher light levels. Cones are specialized to process either short, medium, or long wavelengths, which tend to correlate with blue, green, and red color perception. The information from these photoreceptors is transferred electrochemically to the rest of the brain for interpretation.
These initial steps of processing are rather mechanical, and excluding pathological circumstances, are similar in all people. However, they are just the beginning of a series of increasingly complex procedures that allow for individual differences in perception. As a matter of fact, as far as the dress is concerned, visual processing becomes so complicated that even neural scientists cannot definitively explain the differences in opinion about its color.
How Scientists Explain Different Perceptions of the Dress
Duje Tadin, associate professor for brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, presents a logical explanation that refers back to the basic machinery in the eye. He points to variations between individuals in the number of cones that can perceive blue. Roughly only 2 percent of cones in the average retina respond strongest to blue light, so it is possible that even slight variations between people would create differences in color vision. Might it be that the people who saw the dress as blue simply have more cones that process wavelengths in the blue part of the spectrum? Another reason is offered by Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington. Neitz explains that our brain processes the signals from the eye, but then factors in the amount of light that is hitting the object before it arrives at a decision about the color. Thanks to this “behind-the-scenes,” involuntary work of the brain, we can see that royal blue is royal blue in bright light, or relatively dim light. In the case of the dress, little information was given about its illumination. Possibly, due to some individual variation in this process, some people’s brains processed the color of the dress as if it were in a bright light, decided it had to be a darker color, and arrived at blue and black, while others did the opposite. Assuming a dim light, the brain would suppose that the dress was highly reflective in color, and would arrive at white and gold. Although the scientists had varying theories about this phenomenon, many agreed that individual differences in color perception of this size are extremely unusual.
How great can we expect these variations to be, and how frequently do they occur? In over 30 years of study, Neitz has found that color perception is not universal. He theorizes that there is no default or predetermined pattern to how our brain develops this skill. Rather, our brains learn about color through interaction with our environment, arriving at idiosyncratic interpretations of reflected light. If this is true, then on person’s blue could be another person’s red. These differences are not usually evident, but the picture of the dress in its context of ambiguous lighting created a situation that dramatically illustrated this fact.
The Reactions to the Debate on the Internet
From a psychological point of view, maybe the most interesting aspect of the color debate is the severity of the reactions to the differences in perception. On social media, people reported “freaking out,” feeling “physically ill,” and taking a child to the emergency room. There were paranoid ideas about a plot executed by the illuminati, and a (perhaps joking?) offer to fight anyone who saw the dress as white and gold. The amount of traffic on the internet generated in response to the dress is also evidence of how many people were stirred up by the controversy.
The reason for the outpouring of emotion is that we are wedded to the idea that an objective reality exists, or at least, a consensual one. Furthermore, our need to believe that our perceptions reflect this reality runs very deep. We trust that what our eyes see is real. “Seeing is believing.” It is easy to lose track of the fact that our perceptions are formed based on circumstances, and that in fact, the only reality is the one we construct based on the unique combination of our physiologies and environments. Of course, there is enough similarity between most human beings so that this does not result in chaos, but the fact remains that the concept of objective reality is a construct created by the human mind. And for most, it is probably easier to believe that the discrepant perceptions of the dress was just a matter of lighting.
Mahler, J. (2015). The white and gold (no, blue and black!) dress that melted the internet. The New York Times, Feb. 27. http://nyti.ms/1C4dsYX
Udland, M. (2015). The internet is losing its composure over this dress that might be white and gold or black and blue. The Business Insider. Feb. 26. www.businessinsider.com/white-and-gold-black-and-blue-dress-2015-2.
Rogers, A. (2015). The science of why no one agrees on the color of this dress. Wired/Science. Feb. 26. www.wired.com/2015/02/science-one-agrees-color-dress.
Wolchover, N. (2012). Your color red really could be my blue. www.livescience.com/21275-color-red-blue-scientists.html.