#TheDress and Our Perception of Colour

On Friday morning (Malaysian time) the internet was abuzz with a raging debate similar to that at the ending of Sleeping Beauty… is #thedress white and gold, or blue and black? A user on popular social networking site posted the picture of the aforementioned dress, unknowingly starting a sensation that would grip the internet in less than 24 hours.

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The more important, and scientific question is, “Why do people perceive the colours so differently?”

To answer that question, one must first understand how our retinas receive and computes visual data to our brains.

Dr. Jay Neitz, Ophthalmologist and Founder of the Vision Science Neitz Lab, explains on his site that “color vision works by using three different receptors (call them red, green, and blue) to deliver information to your brain where all the information is “mixed” and the different colours are recognised by you. The receptors in your eye that are responsive to colour are cone cells, and they are located at the back of your eye in the layer known as the retina. Rod cells are also located in this layer, but they are bleached at very low light levels and thus do not contribute to the majority of your day to day vision.  In other words, your night time vision is based on these rod cells.”

Thus, it is the cone cells that contribute to how sensitive you are towards colour perception, yet the rods, which rarely play into colour perception, is influencing how we’re perceiving this image, making it appear lighter in hue to some people.

“Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance,” says Dr. Neitz, “But I’ve studied individual differences in color vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I’ve ever seen.”

The image of this dress is therefore an anomaly, having hit some kind of perception boundary, due in large parts to how we perceive light, considering that we have evolved to pick out colours and images in a white (or light) background against the sun.

Think of it as a contrast, a white object on a black background versus a black object on a white background. In the same vein, “people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black,” says Dr. Conway, who is a neuroscientist studying colour and vision.

What it comes down to, is a seemingly innocuous question about the colour of a dress might now lead into interesting questions being asked in the field of ophthalmology, and may even spark breakthroughs in the science of colours.


By the way, for those of you wondering, the actual colour of the dress, in real life, is black and blue. 

the blue dress