New Research Explains How Poor Lighting and Mental "Photoshopping" Led People to See Different Colors in "The Dress"

Eric Sentell
Optica illusion with a woman's face and a wine glass.Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Remember "the Dress" that "broke" the internet a few years ago? The one that those crazy, demented fools thought was blue and black when it was obviously white and gold? The one that those insane, bizarre people thought was white and gold when it couldn't be any blacker and bluer?

The Dress became a viral sensation. Some people saw a blue and black striped dress, while others saw a white and gold striped dress. If you saw one color scheme, you couldn't fathom how or why others saw a different one. The Internet filled up with people's disbelief and arguing.

The Dress was a unique type of optical illusion

Consider the "Rubin Vase" optical illusion. When you first look at the Rubin Vase, you may see a vase sitting on a table. The more you look it, you may see two faces staring at each other. Everyone can see both images, one at a time.
Optical illusion of a vase and two faces staring at each other.Illusions Index

The "Duck/Rabbit" is similar. You can see a "duck," and then you can see the "rabbit." You can't see both images at the same time, but everyone can switch between perceiving each image.
Optical illusion of a duck and a rabbit.Illusions Index

When the Dress appeared, however, people could not switch between perceiving the two color schemes. They saw only one of the colors and could not see the other no matter how long they looked at it.

Besides leading people to argue, the Dress revealed that our senses may not accurately perceive the world. Our brains "construct" or "imagine" the world around us. How, then, can we know whether we're perceiving the world accurately? How, then, can we have confidence in anything we "know"?

New research explains why different people saw different colors and could not perceive the opposite color.

Our environment shapes our perceptions

Pascal Wallisch studies neuroscience, consciousness, and perception at New York University. He studied the perceptions of 2000 subjects and found that their environment influenced which color they perceived in the Dress.

Visible light contains a spectrum of photons, each with a different wavelength. The colors of the rainbow represent those photons/wavelengths.

When light hits an apple, then the apple's skin absorbs some of the photons and reflects others. The reflected photons enter our pupils, hit our retinas, and get interpreted by our brains.

The apple sitting in the world may be interpreted as "green" or "red" by our brains, depending on which photons the apple reflects.

People call a Granny Smith Apple "green" and a Fiji Apple "red" because virtually all of our brains interpret those reflected photons as "green" and "red."

When something is ambiguous, however, then our brains may have more trouble interpreting it.

The Rubin Vase is ambiguous. Our brains interpret it as a vase, and then it reinterprets it as two faces staring at each other (or vice-versa).

The Duck/Rabbit is ambiguous. Our brains see the duck plain-as-day, and then our brains re-see the same image as a rabbit.

Our brains "photoshop" the world

The Dress was ambiguous due to the photo's poor lighting. Some people's brains performed some "photoshopping" to turn the Dress blue and black, while other people's brains photoshopped the Dress white and gold.

Our brains "photoshop" images all the time without our conscious awareness. In the "grey strawberries" illusion, the strawberries appear red to people even though the digital image contains exactly zero red pixels.
Optical illusion of a bowl of strawberries. They appear red even though there are no red pixels in the image.Illusions Index

In other words, our brains interpret objects that look like strawberries as red even though they're not red. Our past experiences, our environments, influences how our brains make sense of things.

Environment, according to Wallisch's research, determines how one's brain "photoshops" an ambiguous image like the Dress. Wallisch conducted research with 10,000 participants.

People who spent most of their time indoors with artificial lighting perceived the Dress as blue and black. Their brains assumed the Dress was lit up by light bulbs and subtracted the yellow photons/wavelengths from the image.

People who spent most of their time outdoors with natural light perceived the Dress as white and gold. Their brains assumed the Dress was under natural light and subtracted the blue photons/wavelengths.

In both cases, people never realized what their brains had done. They didn't struggle to perceive the colors they saw; they just saw them.

Different brains, different realities, different reactions

Confronted with the Dress photo's poor lighting, people's brains created different lighting conditions based on their past experience, i.e., their environments. This mental photoshopping occurred automatically and without conscious effort or awareness.

Whenever our brains encounter ambiguous images, sounds, or other information, they create the perception most likely to be true based on our previous experiences and environments.

So if you grew up in a loud, exuberant Italian family, then you might think everyone in your spouse's reserved, buttoned-down family is quietly angry with each other all the time. Meanwhile, your spouse doesn't understand why everyone in your family yells at each other non-stop.

Comments / 0

Published by

Lover of books, writing, teaching, and the St. Louis Cardinals

Piedmont, MO

More from Eric Sentell

Comments / 0