We can all agree that it’s a dress. But what color is the dress? The answer may depend on three things: how your eyes are built, the context in which you view the dress, and how your brain perceives color.
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Do you see a blue and black dress? Or is it white and gold? Perhaps you are in the ultra-minority of seeing a blue and gold frock.
“It’s a really good color optical illusion,” Dr. Lystad says.
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The internet sensation had its beginnings when a Scottish singer shared a photo of the lace party frock on the miocroblogging platform Tumblr. People who viewed the picture couldn’t agree on the dress’s colors. The photo was widely shared over social media, getting a lift from celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian, who were weighing in.
How can people see the same thing so differently?
“There is no absolute answer because doctors and scientists don’t understand everything about color perception,” Dr. Lystad says.
However, three factors in general come into play in our perception of color, Dr. Lystad says.
Cones perceive color
The eye works very much like a camera, Dr. Lystad says. Light comes in through the cornea in the front of the eye, goes through the lens and then hits the retina. Structures called rods and cones in the retina turn light waves into neurochemical energy, which is sent to the brain.
It’s the six million to seven million cones in the retina that perceive color, while rods help us see in the dark. But everyone’s cones are distributed differently, which can account – at least in part – for differences in each person’s color perception of the dress, Dr. Lystad says.
Research is still being done on this area to more fully understand how we perceive color, Dr. Lystad says.
“It turns out that not everybody’s cone density is the same, even if they have normal color vision,” she says. “When you look at the retinas of people with normal color vision, the density of the cones versus the rods is not identical in everyone.”
Context of color
Also affecting how people perceive the dress is what background people are viewing the color against and how bright the background is. Dr. Lystad says she notices that the background on the right side of the photo is overexposed, while the left side of picture is very dark. The side you use as a visual reference can influence how you perceive the dress’s color, she says.
“Color is relative to what’s next to it,” Dr. Lystad says. “You can take a little square of gray and put it on different color backgrounds, and it will look like a change of color. It depends on what color the square is sitting next to.”
Your brain’s perception of color
Lastly, how your brain thinks of color can influence how you perceive color. After the eye sends the information to the brain, your brain’s visual processing areas and visual association areas give the color a name and creates context for the color by associating it with a memory.
A purse that you call turquoise may be called green by some of your friends and blue by others, for example.
Dr. Lystad, who collects optical illusions as a hobby, says the dress is a fun visual trick. She sees it as blue and gold – definitely in what she calls the “ultra-minority.” Blue and black is the most-reported color from those she has talked to about the photo.