By now, you’ve seen the Twitter world lose its collective mind over the black-and-blue dress that, to some, looks gold and white. Since the dress appeared innocuously on Tumblr yesterday, it’s already prompted a stream of equally bemused and baffled social media wars. (I, for one, am on team white and gold.) So what’s going on? Why are some people seeing the dress as white and gold, but others blue and black?
Searching for an answer, I called up color vision scientist Jay Neitz from the University of Washington. "You must be calling about the dress," he says with a laugh. "You're the fifth person to call so far."
So what's going on here, I hastily ask? It turns out even Neitz (who's also on team white and gold) isn't sure, though he's still quick to offer some fascinating insight: "If you print [the image of] the dress out, and you cut out little squares of it and you look at the [squares] all by themselves, in the absence of any context, they’re all actually somewhere in between white and gold and black and blue," he tells me. "What’s happening is that the context is reflecting to people in different ways. It drives one set of people one way, and one set of people another."
OK, let's take a step back. Our visual system sees a lot of light that bounces off of objects—say, a black cat reflecting white light on a sunny day—but sends a message to the brain to filter out that extraneous color information. Put simply: Our brains make images look like we expect them to.
"My brain attributes that blueness to the illuminant. It thinks, 'Oh there’s a little blue coming off that dress.' But I don’t think of that dress as being blue itself; I think maybe the lighting is a little blue."
So we are all, in fact, seeing the blue being reflected. For some reason, this image of the dress confused some people's brains. "My brain attributes that blueness to the illuminant. It thinks, 'Oh there’s a little blue coming off that dress.' But I don’t think of that dress as being blue itself; I think maybe the lighting is a little blue," Neitz says. "I think what happens is that other people see the same amount of blue and are contributing it to the color of that dress."
The reason behind that person-by-person discrepancy is unknown, although, per BuzzFeed News, "[each] person brings a different set of experiences and expectations, as well as attention levels and particular eye movements." That means that our color perception is shaped by our lives in the outside world; maybe my day happened to be an especially bright one?
As to the photo itself, it seems the camera (presumably a smartphone) had a color lapse of its own. "The camera is trying to adjust the balance to get the illumination right and the white balance right," Neitz says. "So it gives you back this very strange picture that the camera was using its brain to get the picture to look right. Then different peoples’ brains are basically reacting to that context in two different ways."
The whole thing is just so strange. In the end, I think Neitz sums it up best: "It’s mind-boggling."