The Dress: Perception vs. Reality

Article by: Ayla Ahmed

On the evening of the 26th February 2015, a picture of a dress posted by Tumblr user “Swiked” went viral. As ordinary as it is, the dress represents both an astonishing illustration of the way our brain works, alongside the classic case of how it is often large social media platforms, in comparison to real life interactions, that are responsible for overhyped, widely circulated, and viral phenomenon.

But seriously, what color is this dress? If you haven’t seen it yet: Some see white and gold, some see blue and black, and others, strangely enough, a mixture of gold and blue. The controversy has garnered the opinions of tens of millions of people online, generating one of the biggest social media debates of all time. But how is this possible? The dress is, in fact, black and blue. However the people who see gold claim to see it very vividly, which cannot be mistaken for black. Since these two colors are so strikingly different (or so we thought), what makes it possible to mistake one for the other?

Scientists have come up with a simple enough explanation. When perceiving color, the brain uses the three coordinates: R, G and B (red, green and blue). However, since our retinal sensors and brains vary, our perception of color also varies slightly. The dress is an especially striking example of this retinal sensor variation as the colors are not a pure shade of red, green or blue. Hence, there is no definitive or dominant response from the red, green and blue receptors in the retina. What happens instead is a complicated combination of responses, thus leading to different perceptions in different people.

Having seen blue and gold and later white and gold, sophomore Mae Kirkpatrick tells Bamboo Telegraph, “you can’t always trust what you first see” and that “your sight can be influenced by other things you’re used to, making it less reliable”, bringing to mind the question of the reliability of vision. Sophomore Josh Tan adds that, “humans can be easily mislead by a simple illusion”, indicating how our lives are so impacted by the people and things around us. The things your best friend has experienced, for example, can cause him/her to perceive a color differently from the way you may perceive it, simply because you have differing experiences.

This mind-blowing revelation brings about the question: can we really trust what we see? If everyone has different experiences, it’s hard to know whether the colors we see are the same as those around us, thus leaving humanity with just another unanswered question about our complex selves. The dress did much more than it intended to, and in result, gives fire to the mystery of our eyesight and perception.