OK, by now you’ve seen “The Dress.” It has torn families apart and started raging online factions of amateur color theorists. But what is really going on? Rather than expound on visual perception and color theory, maybe it would be easiest to take a look at a number of mind-bending optical illusions that twist our perception the in the same way.
Here’s the first. The two dogs below are the same color:
Don’t believe me? What if I remove the background?
Obviously the gradient pups are the same color here, but it’s almost impossible to see above. The only difference is the background. What our brain is doing is compensating for the brightness, colors, etc., of the background and adding/subtracting information to literally create the “correct” color. The wavelengths of light hitting your eye might be objective, but color perception certainly is not.
Next is the “checker shadow illusion,” developed by Edward H. Adelson, Professor of Vision Science at MIT. This illusion highlights the importance of colors too, but more so how the brain adjusts colors when shadows are present. Squares A and B are the same color (seeing a pattern here?):
The checker shadow illusion is particularly hard to swallow, but the GIF says it all.
So the problem with the dress likely has to do with lighting and backgrounds, but color as well. Let’s combine the first two illusions in another. Again, you guessed it — the “brown” square in the middle of the top face of the Rubik’s Cube is the same color as the “orange” square in the middle face facing you:
Remove the shadows and the same-colored squares reveal themselves.
These illusions are easy to see through. Just change the lighting or cut out a piece of the images and the illusions collapses. Unfortunately, the dress seems to be impervious to that kind of reveal — blue and black switches to white and gold seemingly without anything else changing. But again, more straight-forward illusions that highlight the principles behind this viral singularity make it seem less mysterious.
For example, blocks A and B are the exact same color, and if you put your finger over the intersection of the two, you can instantly see that is the case:
How the brain perceives backgrounds and lighting and object orientation is fundamental to shaping what we see. We don’t really even see the world for what it is — we see models of the world that have happened to work out for us as a species over millions of years of evolution. The dress really is a fascinating case of visual perception precisely because it is an image that teeters on the edge of the brain’s color and lighting models for so many people.
And for what it’s worth, when you do expose the dress like you would any of the illusions above, here too the mystery disappears:
For more information, check out my video explanation of the dress phenomenon below: