Scientists' Latest Craze: 'the Dress'

Blue and black? White and gold? Assumptions about lighting are key
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted May 17, 2015 6:50 AM CDT
Studies Pour In to Finally Shed Light on 'the Dress'
Don't worry, that dress on the right is, indeed, black and white.   (AP Photo/PA. Joe Giddens)

Not one, but three new studies emerged this week in a scientific journal seeking to explain the still-puzzling Internet phenomenon that is the Dress. "There will be dozens and dozens of papers about it over the years. This is just the beginning," Wellesley professor Bevil Conway tells the Los Angeles Times. The pieces in Current Biology are united in the idea that we all see the dress differently because we make different assumptions about the color of the light illuminating it, the LA Times reports. "You have in your head an internal model of what the colors of the world are, and that helps you resolve ambiguities," Conway notes. Your brain isn't getting enough information from the bad picture of the dress that was circulating, he tells the New York Times, "so the brain has to turn to the internal model and say, ‘Hey, guru, what do you think is going on out there?'" Also among the findings:

  • Brains that think the dress is being colored by a blue sky will ignore blue; the dress, for them, is white and gold. But if we're perceiving the dress as being lit by an orange incandescent bulb, it's a blue and black dress that we see (which is correct, given normal lighting, the LA Times reminds us).
  • Overall, a study finds, 57% of people see blue and black, 30% see white and gold, and 11% see blue and brown, according to a poll of 1,400 people (2% see other colors). Women and elderly people have higher odds of seeing a white and gold outfit, while men and younger folks tend to see the actual colors of blue and black, according to the same study, led by Conway. Researchers theorize that could be because women and older people are awake more in the daytime, so they have more of a tendency to assume a blue sky is affecting their perceptions.
  • There's also the possibility that bluish shadows are coming into play, notes a study led by Michael Webster of the University of Nevada, Reno. That gets us into the habit of ignoring the color blue. In fact, when researchers replaced the blue with yellow, people stopped disagreeing about the color, with most clearly seeing the yellow: "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," Webster says. That study found participants were evenly divided in seeing white and gold or blue and black, the New York Times reports.
  • As for that frustrating lace: A pixel analysis shows it as brown, Conway tells the New York Times. Some saw it as gold, it seems, because their brains told them it was shiny.
A Salvation Army ad that featured the dress sparked its share of controversy, too. (Read more dresses stories.)

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