The Color You See “The Dress” Might Depend On When You Wake Up


Two years after
The Dress broke the internet, scientists are converging on
an explanation: The dress color you see depends on unconscious
assumptions about the light shining on it.

Posted on April 07, 2017, 17:00 GMT

The day after a viral
BuzzFeed post asked about the color of a certain striped
cocktail dress, neuroscientist Pascal Wallisch pulled up the
infamous photo on his laptop and showed it to his wife.

Why are people freaking out about this, he asked her, when
it’s so obviously white and gold?

“And she said, ‘What are you talking about? It’s obviously
black and blue’,” Wallisch, a clinical assistant professor of
psychology at New York University, told BuzzFeed News. “I
knew she wouldn’t screw with me — she’s very serious, she’s a
lawyer. So I realized immediately that nothing that we know
about color vision could explain this.”

Tens of millions of people were having the same argument,
leading to a cultural phenomenon now known as simply, “The
Dress.” In the two years since, at least half a dozen studies
have come out trying to answer the question on everyone’s
minds: How could two people look at the same photo — on the
same screen, at the same time — and have such dramatically
different perceptions?

This research has coalesced on an intriguing explanation:
The color you see on the dress depends on the unconscious
assumptions your brain makes about the light shining on it.
People who assume that the dress is in shadow — that is,
basking in blue light — will usually see it as yellow,
presumably because their brains are subconsciously
subtracting blue from the scene to take the shadow into
account. Conversely, people whose brains assume the dress is
under artificial lights are more likely to see it as blue,
because they’re mentally discounting yellow.

But why do certain people make one assumption and not the
other?

No one knows exactly, but Wallisch provides one answer in a
study
published today. Surveying more than 13,000 people — the
largest published study of The Dress to date — he finds that
early risers tend to see the frock as gold and white, whereas
night owls are slightly more likely to see it as blue and
black.

This makes sense, he says, because people who wake up early
are, over their lifetimes, exposed to more blue light (from
the sky) than are people who tend to stay up into the night,
surrounded by artificial yellow light.

For these scientists who have studied The Dress, the photo
has profound implications.

“What I find fascinating is that it’s basically some kind of
belief or knowledge that people have about the scene that
influences what they see,” said Christoph Witzel, a vision
scientist at the Justus Liebig University of Giessen in
Germany who published a study
about the illumination of The Dress earlier this year. “It
means that very fundamental things such as colors, that we
think are just there, that we believe are parts of the
outside world, in reality can be influenced by what we
believe.”

For about a month after The Dress appeared, Wallisch said,
it’s all he and his colleagues could talk about. It was (and
still is) one of the only images known to produce such
striking differences in color perception from one person to
another. “It was like finding a new organ, or a new species,”
he said.

“It was like finding a new organ, or a new species.” 

The dress effect is probably not inherited. The genetic
testing company 23andMe
polled about 25,000 of its customers about how they saw
the photo, and found no genes that could predict color
perception. Similarly, a study
found that identical twins (who share 100% of their DNA)
don’t always see the dress the same way, although they are
more likely than fraternal twins (who only share about 50% of
their DNA) to see it as the same color. That suggests that
genes have some influence on how we see The Dress, but that
most of the effect is driven by our environment and life
experiences.

Wallisch’s new paper, published on Friday in the Journal
of Vision
, is based on two internet surveys, one that
included 8,084 people a month after The Dress was published,
and another that included 5,333 people a year later.

Like previous
studies,
Wallisch’s found that people who assumed the dress was in
shadow were more likely to see it as gold, compared to those
who thought it was in artificial light.

His findings regarding early and late risers (whom he calls
“larks” and “owls,” respectively) showed up in both surveys,
though the effect was subtle. In the first survey, a “strong
lark” was 11% more likely to see the dress as gold and white
than was a “strong owl.” (In the second survey, the effect
was larger, with strong larks being almost 40% more likely to
see it as gold and white. The difference, Wallisch guesses,
could be because the first survey, coming out so soon after
The Dress, had more trolls lying about what they saw. He did
not discard any data points from either survey.)

Original Sample: % of
People Who See Gold and White
Pascal
Wallisch

Replication Sample: % of
People Who See Gold and White
Pascal
Wallisch

The noisy data showed up in his own family: Wallisch is an
extreme owl, staying up into all hours of the night, but he
saw the dress as gold and white, the opposite of what his
paper would predict. And his lawyer wife wakes up early, but
saw it as blue and black.

Other researchers found the new study valuable, particularly
because its two surveys included large groups of people and
replicated each other.

“I don’t very often get to say that studies are impressively
well done but I think this one is,” Lisa Feldman Barrett, a
professor of psychology at Northeastern University, told
BuzzFeed News. “I found it very persuasive.” (As a lark who
sees the dress as gold and white, she also happens to fit the
theory.)

Feldman Barrett, author of How Emotions Are Made: The
Secret Life of the Brain
, noted that this is but one
example of many in which our brains use the accumulation of
past experiences to make judgments about the present.
“Everything that you see and hear and taste and touch, every
thought that you have, every emotion, every memory, all
arises pretty much in the same way — in this predictive
architecture of the brain.”

Some scientists aren’t as sold. Dale Purves, a research
professor at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, told
BuzzFeed News that although the new study provides the
“definitive database” for data on The Dress, he doesn’t think
Wallisch’s theory fully explains the phenomenon. “There’s
something deep here, there’s no question,” said Purves (early
riser, blue and black). “But it’s fair to say that no one has
really explained it.”

Perhaps more interesting than the science of The Dress,
Purves said, is the fact that tens of millions of people
cared so much about it. “It’s a big deal because of the
internet, not the other way around.”

If you’d like to participate in Wallisch’s next study about
#thedress and similar images, take his survey here.


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