I know, I know you’ve already seen it. From Tumblr to mainstream news outlets across the world, right now it appears that a pretty unremarkable blue dress with black lace has become one of the most viral memes ever.
As with anything this widespread, people are already getting tired of it, calling it a distraction from important news and even deeming it a “new low” for the internet. But bear with me.
Because of my past dabbles in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, I found the dress illusion to be absolutely awesome. In fact, I think it’s one of the best illusions I have ever seen, and I’m not alone in this – hence the collective global freakout.
At first, when it started popping up on my Facebook feed, I really didn’t understand why people are asking whether the dress is blue – it looked white and gold to me, albeit the white was more like the kind of pastel purple you get when a photo has improper white balance.
Then I saw a corrected white-balanced version of the photo, and all of a sudden it was apparent – the dress is blue.
Furthermore, I simply can’t unsee the blueness any more! I had a massive fit of The Giggles of Disbelief when this happened, along with many other people I’m sure.
So yes, mind – blown. And I use that phrase sparingly.
Best links about the science of the dress
I thought it would be nice to write about the science behind this dress illusion, but I was late to the bandwagon, and there is some excellent stuff out there already.
So instead, here are all the things actually worth reading.
“Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance,” says Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington.
Dr. Neitz has been working in the field of color vision research for about 35 years. He runs a renowned laboratory called the Neitz Color Vision Lab. [..] “Now I’m going to spend the rest of my life working on this,” he told me. “I thought I was going to cure blindness, but now I guess I’ll do this.”
I suspect that the in-office and over-dinner-table arguments taking place all over the world right now are caused by each of us making a different set of (internal, unconscious) assumptions about the visual scene we are shown.
Your brain does its own white balancing automatically, meaning that you’re either ignoring the blue hue, giving a white/gold image, or ignoring the yellow hue, giving a blue/black photo.
NEW New Scientist: What colour is the dress? Here’s why we disagree
But after playing with the image for a while switched to a black/bluer. “I can’t get my original percept back. Usually when this happens, I can see both. So it’s very interesting.”
In short, there are theories, but nothing definitive. Which means that vision scientists are so puzzled I wouldn’t be surprised if we will see actual scientific papers come out about The Dress sometime soon. Which would be freaking cool.
This perceptual illusion also echoes some classic philosophy of mind stuff called ‘qualia’, so if you’re curious, read this too:
What if you woke up one day and all the things that looked red to you before going to sleep suddenly looked green, with the entire color spectrum shifted accordingly?
Oh, and don’t forget xkcd.
Now, was it blue or white for you? Did it change, like it did for me? I’d love to know.