Remember #thedress? Here are 3 scientific reasons why you thought it was blue
It seems like just yesterday that a cell phone picture of a dress hit social media and made everyone question what they were seeing, who their friends were, and basically everything we thought we knew about life. Factions formed. Fights erupted. How could a dress, now known as simply The Dress, appear to be two totally different color combinations depending on who was looking at it? At the time, a few people made scientific arguments, including explaining the way our eyes see color. But now, we have not one, but three scientific studies dedicated to The Dress! And it seems this is just the beginning.
In an issue published last week, the journal Current Biology included three different studies that look at what made us all see the dress differently. According to the findings of one study, which surveyed 1,400 people, most people saw it as blue and black (#TeamBlueAndBlack forever), with only 30% seeing it as white and gold. Turns out over 10% saw it as blue and brown, and 2% responded “other.”
According to Michael Webster, a researcher at Reno’s University of Nevada, the picture of The Dress is WAY more than just a viral sensation. It allowed for a pretty amazing opportunity to study the eye and how we perceive color. The Dress is also interesting in that, unlike optical illusions, it’s not really possible to “flip” your perception once you’ve seen a certain color combination. i.e. you can’t tune your brain into seeing either color combo on command.
“We knew that individual differences in perception are bigger than most people realize, but this picture really did take us aback,” he told The Los Angeles Times.
Professor Bevil Conway, author of another study on The Dress, told the LA Times, “It’s clearly a crappy picture, but it turns out to be an extraordinarily powerful tool for visual neuroscientists. There will be dozens and dozens of papers about it over the years. This is just the beginning.”
So why did we all see different things in one picture? All the studies agree it was caused by differences in interpreting the light that’s reflecting off the dress. As the LA Times explains, “If our brains conclude that the image is lighted by a cool illuminant like a blue sky, we will ignore shorter wavelengths and determine that the dress is white and gold. However, if our brains decide that the image is being lighted by a warm illuminant like an incandescent light, we will discount longer wavelengths in the picture and will see the dress as blue and black.”
There are a few variables in terms of what colors you are most likely to see. One study found that for women and older viewers, the dress was more likely to appear white and gold. Men and younger viewers were more likely to see blue and black. People who work under artificial lighting could even see it as blue and brown. There are even differences in the exact shades people were seeing!
A third study found that the way our eyes filter light could have impacted the color we saw, as people are more likely to filter away blue.
“Your visual system is always trying to separate out what color is coming from the lighting and what color is coming from the object, and you do that differently for blue and yellow,” Webster said. “When you see a bluish tint you attribute it to the light, and when you see a yellowish tint you attribute it to the object.”
There you have it! From viral image to scientific discovery! Take that, anyone who thought #TheDress was a waste of time.