Something really weird happened on the internet today. A girl posted a picture of a dress on Tumblr, with a caption that sounded pretty desperate: “Guys please help me—is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking the fuck out.”
One of my friends sent me the link. “What color is the dress?” he asked. “Blue and black, obviously,” I replied. Then I asked my co-worker Mike Pearl, just to be sure. To my horror, he honestly and legitimately saw the dress as white and gold.
At first, I thought he was just fucking with me, so I started asking everyone in the VICE LA office—half of whom saw blue and black, half of whom saw white and gold (with the latter group in the slight majority).
Hundreds of other people have weighed in on this, too. The Tumblr post is filled with reblogs from people debating the color. The hashtag #Dressgate sprang up. It was kind of like the time a Redditor posted “TIL that roughly half of men wipe standing up and the other half wipe sitting down, and most people don’t realize the other group exists.”
About two-thirds of people see it as white and gold,
according to a Buzzfeed quiz, which made me feel like I was going insane. I opened the link in multiple different browsers. I looked at it on my laptop and on my iPhone. I printed the image out. It still looked blue and black to me. Finally, I called up Dr. Jay Neitz, PhD, a color vision researcher at the University of Washington.
I sent Dr. Neitz the link to the Tumblr post and asked him to tell me what color he saw. “White and gold,” he told me flatly. “What is it you’re asking?”
After I explained that I saw the dress as blue and black, he said he wanted to ask one of the students working in his vision lab for a second opinion. “Blue and black,” the student replied. There was a long pause on the other end of the phone.
“Why is this happening? I don’t know,” Dr. Neitz told me. “This is one of the most fascinating color vision things I’ve seen in a long time.”
It’s important for me to tell you that Dr. Neitz has been working in the field of color vision research for about 35 years. He runs a renowned laboratory called the Neitz Color Vision Lab. He has a Wikipedia page. And he had no fucking clue what was going on with this photo of a dress.
I pointed out to Dr. Neitz that there’s another image, on the original Tumblr, purporting to show the dress as it appeared when the buyer wore it. In that image, Dr. Neitz (and everyone else we asked) agreed that the dress was black and blue.
Some people in our office never saw blue in the original, but they did after they saw the second photo. Other people still couldn’t perceive blue, even when they knew it was correct. The neuroscientist Beau Lotto pointed out in a TED Talk that sensory information is essentially meaningless without context, and that “the brain didn’t actually evolve to see the world the way it is. We can’t. Instead, the brain evolved to see the world the way it was useful to see in the past.”
Although Dr. Neitz was puzzled about what was happening, he posited a few theories. First, he suggested that the way we see it differently might have something to do with age. “The lens of your eye changes throughout your lifespan, and you’re less sensitive to blue light when you’re older.” That might explain why Dr. Neitz saw white and his students saw blue, but here in the VICE LA office, the age differences were not distinct. So that theory was a bust.
A better theory is that it might have something to do with the lighting. Humans are equipped with something called “color constancy,” which basically means that the color red still looks red whether you’re in bright lighting or dim lighting. But something weird starts to happen if the lighting is colored.
“If I go into a room and I turn on a light that’s completely red, the white things will reflect all that red light,” Dr. Neitz explained. “But if I also have a red thing, then that will reflecting the red light, too.” So when your brain tries to process what color something is in the red light, its best guess is to say that it’s white—even if, in normal lighting, it’s actually red.
“I used to own a red Volkswagon,” Dr. Neitz told me. “I was out and it was dark and I was getting into my car. Someone next to me had just gotten into their car and put on their brake lights. When they did that, my car was illuminated just with the brake lights—and my car looked white!”
That’s likely what’s going on with the photo here: The photo was probably taken in blueish lighting, which makes your brain think that the dress is actually white. That makes sense. What
doesn’t make sense is why some peoples’ brains perceive this as blue and others perceive this as white. Dr. Neitz specifically studies individual differences in how people see, and he’d never seen anything like this.
“In general, you’re going to see differently than the person next to you. But this is a
huge difference. I mean, this really takes the cake.”
With Dr. Neitz’s explanation in mind, we started doing some in-office experiments. Mike Pearl, who saw the dress as white and gold, printed out an image of the dress and studied it for a very, very long time. He found that if he looked at the image straight-on, he saw it as white; if he tilted it, it looked blue.
When I started drafting this post, I still saw the dress as blue and black. But then, the weirdest thing happened: I suddenly saw the dress as white and gold. “Did you change this image?” I asked Mike. He hadn’t. In fact, I hadn’t even refreshed the page. I had uploaded an image that looked blue and black; now, it looked white and gold.
We still aren’t totally sure what the hell is going on, though. Dr. Neitz seemed really fascinated by it, though.
“Now I’m going to spend the rest of my life working on this,” he told me. “I thought I was going to cure blindness, but now I guess I’ll do this.”