“The Dress” Controversy: Experts Weigh In

Is it possible to say “Yes to the Dress” without even knowing what color it is? One picture took the internet by storm on a Thursday, and people are still talking about it. Is the dress blue with black lace or white with gold lace? It should be a simple answer, but the votes were split down the middle, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

It all started when a 21-year-old woman named Caitlin McNeill posted a photo of a dress that had been worn at a wedding she attended in Scotland. She wrote, “guys please help me-is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree…”

One thing we all can agree on is that black and blue are rarely confused for gold and white. How is it possible to see such vastly different colors when looking at the same photograph? The answer lies in science and how our brain distinguishes color in a sunlit world.

Light has infinite wavelengths corresponding to different colors. When light enters the eye, it hits the retina where pigments initiate neural connections to a part of the brain called the visual cortex that processes those signals into an image. Actually, though, that first burst of light is comprised of the wavelengths which are lighting the world, reflecting off whatever you’re looking at. The brain involuntarily deciphers what color light is bouncing off an object and it removes that color from the actual color of the object so what you are seeing is the true color.

The picture of The Dress hit some kind of “perceptual boundary.” When analyzing the photo of The Dress in Photoshop, it is easier to spot shadows, ambient light and background variation to cue us that maybe our eyes are playing tricks on us. Whether we see a white dress or a blue dress may have more to do with the background color than the actual color. How our eyes perceive that first burst of light affects how we see highlighting, shadows, background, and ultimately, The Dress.

Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College concludes that the colors you see are the colors on which your brain decides to focus: “So 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.” And to satisfy your curiosity once and for all—the dress is blue with black lace (Source: Wired).