Mythbusters: Dress Edition

Posted on May 14th, 2019 by

Written by Lauren Casey, Kristen Eggler, and Kjorte Harra

Take a look at this dress below. What colors do you see?

Figure caption: The original photo of the “the dress” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_dress

How about now? Can you see two differently colored dresses? These are the two different colors individuals may see (the white and gold image below shows a flipped striped pattern rather than the actual illusion). Blue and black is the original dress color while some people experience a visual illusion causing them to see the dress as white and gold.

Source: https://nypost.com/2017/04/10/why-the-world-couldnt-agree-on-the-color-of-the-dress/

In February 2015, the now infamous photo dubbed “The Dress” was posted online after disagreements over the garment arose among the dress owner’s family (Koerner, 2015). The photo reached viral fame quickly, with thousands of people on various social media platforms unable to come to a consensus on the colors of the dress. Some people saw it as white and gold, while others saw it as blue and black. The stark differences between these perceptions sparked a lot of discussion and debate online, even prompting scientific studies surrounding this illusion (Lewis, 2015; Luntz, 2015).

How can people see such different colors on the dress from the same image? Several theories have been proposed, with varying levels of scientific credibility. We are here to sort out the myths from the facts so you know what is really happening!

Myth 1: Emotions influence how we see color. With this idea, a person’s emotions can dictate whether they see the dress as white and gold or black and blue.

Fact: There is some scientific backing to this claim, as our perception of color is susceptible to outside influences beside our eyes and brain. When we perceive color, our brains do not actually receive much raw information on an object’s color. Instead, we tend to “fill in the gaps” to give our sensation more meaning. We use prior experience, expectations of what we are seeing, and our other senses to compensate for the lack of information our brain receives (Crimmins, 2015). Our experience of color does not exist in a vacuum – how different colors work together and our own cultural experiences play into our perception of color (Crimmins, 2015).

To more closely examine how our emotions directly influence our perception of color, a research study was conducted at the University of Rochester in 2015. Researchers found that participants were less likely to correctly identify colors on a a blue-to-yellow scale after watching a sadness-inducing video, compared to those who had watched a funny clip instead (Luntz, 2015; Thorstenson, Pazda, & Elliot, 2015). Essentially, participants who felt sad were more likely to incorrectly identify whether a displayed color was blue or yellow. These results can help explain how people’s current emotional state can influence how they view colors on a blue-yellow scale. However, people typically only see blue and black or white and gold, and cannot “switch” their perception when their emotional state changes. Based on this research it is entirely plausible some of the individual differences in perception of the dress can be explained by current emotional states, but more work needs to be done before this myth can be confirmed or busted. For the time being, it’s unclear whether emotions play a significant enough role into color perception.

Source: https://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/mythbusters/

Myth 2: Differences in retina functioning causes some people to see the illusion (white and gold) and others to see the reality (blue and black).

Fact: The retina is a region in the back of the eye with two types of photoreceptors – rods and cones. Rods and cones are responsible for receiving light and turning it into neurological signals for the brain to process (Wolfe et al., 2018). Rods and cones specialize in receiving different wavelengths not color. Rods cannot see wavelengths that are useful in color perception. Cones can and there are three types of cones to distinguish between three different wavelengths. These cones share information about wavelengths to create color. For example, wavelengths between 400 and 500 nanometers signal blue while wavelengths between 575 and 650 nanometers signals yellow. Because all three types of cones are communicating with one another about wavelengths, it is unlikely that such extreme differences in color perception is a result      of how well the cones work and thus, this myth is busted.

Source: https://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/mythbusters/

Myth 3: The brain subconsciously makes an assumption about the environment lighting which causes people to see different colors in the dress.

Fact: Two colors side by side interact with one another, and change our perception of what we see. This phenomenon is called simultaneous contrast. While the colors don’t change at all, our brain percepts the colors differently because of this contrast between the two colors. This can explain why some see gold and white, while others see black and blue.

In addition to our brains making assumptions based on the contrast between two colors, it also makes assumptions when it comes to lighting. In general, the human visual system has to take the color of the illumination into account when determining the color of objects (Wallisch, 2017). The source of light is unknown in the picture, so our brains do the best they can to fill in the gaps and try to perceive what seems “most correct” based on the context they have seen a dress in a majority of the time in the past. In this case, our brains perceive the dress to be in what we have seen the most, which differs for each person. Those who perceive it to be in blue light, they will mentally subtract the blue, and see gold. Artificial light tends to have a more yellowish tint to it, a longer wavelength, so artificial lighting will make people perceive the dress as blue. Lastly, Wallisch says that people who get up in the morning see more daylight in their lifetime and tend to see the dress as white and gold, but people who get up later and stay up late see more artificial light in their lifetime and tend to see the dress as black and blue. Maybe the dress isn’t controversial after all, it just reveals whether one person spends more time in artificial light versus natural light.

Source: https://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/mythbusters/

So now that you know how it works, what does this mean for our vision? Do we experience illusions often and don’t realize it because we aren’t always asking friends what they see? Thankfully, when we are looking at the world as it is, and not in a picture, we are able to look around to find context clues so color illusions are not common. Just in pictures. For another example, see the jacket below.

Figure Caption: “The jacket”
Source: https://observer.com/2016/02/the-dress-strikes-back-a-new-viral-optical-illusion-emerges/

Works Cited

Crimmins, P. (2015 February 19). How emotions, ideas and senses influence our color perception. Retireved from https://whyy.org/segments/how-emotions-ideas-and-senses-affect-our-perception-of-color/

Koerner, C. (2015 February 26). The dress is blue and black, says the girl who saw it in person. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/claudiakoerner/the-dress-is-blue-and-black-says-the-girl- who-saw-it-in-pers

Lewis, T. (2015 May 14). Science of “the dress”: why we confuse white & gold with blue & black. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/50842-dress-debate-color-perception.html

Luntz, Sp. (2015 September 08). Your mood can affect your ability to see color. Retrieved from  https://www.iflscience.com/brain/feeling-blue-makes-it-hard-see-blues/

Retraction of “Sadness Impairs Color Perception.” (2015). Psychological Science, 26(11), 1822–1822. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615597672

Thorstenson, C. A., Pazda, A. D., & Elliot, A. J. (2015). Sadness impairs color perception. Psychological Science. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/0956797615597672

Wallisch, P. (2017). Revisiting the dress: Illumination assumptions account for individual differences. Elsevier. Retrieved from http://scitechconnect.elsevier.com/revisiting-the-dress-illumination-assumptions/

Wolfe, J.M., Kluender, K.R., Levi, D.M, Bartoshuk, L.M., Herz, R.S., Klatzky, R.L., & Merfeld, D.M. (2018). Perception of Color in Sensation and Perception (p.136-173). New York, NY: Oxford University

 

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