The Science Behind The Dress

Tumblr user swiked

Social media blew up in the past hours over a dress and which color it is. #TheDress is still the top trending hashtag on Twitter as of writing this story.

When I logged into Twitter this morning I first thought #TheDress hashtag was about the stolen $150,000 Lupita Nyong’o Oscar dress, but that was not the case. A simple question about the color of a dress has social media and search engines going crazy in the past hours. The hashtag #TheDress is still the top trending hashtag and on Google the most searched terms are “white and gold dress” and “the dress”. 

The whole thing started with a Tumblr post of by 21-year-old singer Caitlin McNeill living on a small Scottish island. She posted: “guys please help me – is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking the f!@# out.”

The question has gone viral and even celebrities like Taylor Swift and Mindy Kaling answered the question. The issue is that there are people who see the dress being blue and black and others see gold and white. I am in the gold and white camp right now. I say right now as this might change over the course of the day. Wired has consulted with Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington and he says that the dress photo is one of the biggest individual differences in color vision he has seen in 30 years studying human vision. Neitz says that the image is hitting some kind of perceptual boundary. 

Humans see different colors throughout the day because of the color changes of daylight. Usually the brain filters out those changes to see the correct colors and object has. The Dress image is though pushing that system to the limit.

“What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College. “So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.”  

See the Wired report for visualizations of the different colors people see. The internet can now calm down again as there is no right or wrong in the answer for the question which colors the dress is.


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