FFS, the dress problem isn’t psychological or perceptual

I’ve done my best to ignore the nonsense surrounding That Dress but I’ve lost patience with the abundance of stupidity that has been bought to the discussion. ISN’T IT AS OBVIOUS AS THE NOSE ON YOUR FACE? Neither the dress nor the photo of the dress are optical illusions. The dress was simply photographed under lighting conditions that gave rise to a photograph featuring colours that markedly differ from the actual colours of the dress as seen under regular lighting conditions, THEREFORE, the dress in the photo is different colours to the dress in reality. Here’s the big news; colours can be manipulated in photography! Amazing isn’t it? This manipulation can be done on a photo in computerized format using various computer applications, or the colours can be manipulated or altered before the photo is taken, by lighting of the scene to be photographed. In effect, the dress in the photo is a tint of the dress in reality. Why the confusion then? The confusion arose because the question “What colour is the dress?” requires clarification, but no one had the smarts to figure out that the question could be and was likely to be interpreted in two different ways, and thus the requirement for a clarification of the question was not identified. Some people, like myself, interpreted the question to mean “What colour is the dress in the photograph?”, and clearly it is a cold, mauvey-blue unsaturated colour and golden brown, no black, definitely no black, as anyone could see if they held an actually black item up against their computer screen while viewing the photo of the dress on their screen. Understandably, many other people interpreted the question as an invitation to guess, reason or theorize what the colour of the dress might be in reality, based on the way it appears in the photo. These people correctly and cleverly guessed or reasoned that the dress is blue and black. I do wonder about those who saw white and gold, but the question was a trick question, so I wouldn’t judge them.

There’s nothing I love more than a good optical illusion or perceptual anomaly, especially in real life situations, but I’m very sure this dress thing is not one of them. This problem appears to be one for the philosophers, not the psychologists or the scientists, but then again, I’m tempted to wonder whether there might be some measurable psychological or neurological or behavioural difference between those who naturally give an answer based on their immediate visual perception and those who naturally give an answer based on their own interpretation of their visual perceptions. I suspect that the difference might be interesting and meaningful. I’ll bet the former are less prone to most genuine visual illusions.


Postscript March 5th 2015

I’d like to add another point to this post. From what I’ve read this entire dress discussion had it’s origin in the non-scientific world of social media “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”. This young lady who does not appear to be a scientist or a psychologist discovered a very interesting perceptual anomaly phenomenon thing that has sparked huge discussion, including discussion by and among scientists, and the story has been reported in at least one international science magazine. I find it interesting that this dress meme didn’t come from the world of science. Would it have been ignored or have failed to “go viral” if a scientist had discovered The Dress? Does this say something about the sociology of this meme, or is it more the case that a non-scientist has discovered a phenomenon that is more interesting (in regard to the way it has identified puzzlingly polarized responses in large numbers of people) than anything that scientists or academics have discovered recently. Is this an example of non-scientists (not even citizen scientists) making a greater contribution to the science of colour perception than the actual scientists who are supposed to be right on top of this stuff? I know that researchers and others have identified many different types of visual illusions that are supposed to trick most or all people, but I’m not aware of a visual stimuli that polarizes viewers the way The Dress does. Am I simply ignorant? As I have written before, I believe that science is too important to leave it to the scientists.

Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.


  • Tomas  On March 4, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    I don’t think you have understood what others see in this photograph. You are hypothesising that people basically see the same thing, and the different answers come from interpreting the question differently, for example that:

    “These people correctly and cleverly guessed or reasoned that the dress is blue and black.”

    But that’s not what’s going on. The people who say it is blue and black don’t look at the photo, see a mauve and gold dress, and think to themselves, “ah, must be a blue and black dress in unusual lighting conditions”. They look at it and immediately perceive a blue and black dress, and can’t see how anyone could think it was white and gold.

    And you ask “I do wonder about those who saw white and gold”. That’s what I perceive, and it’s what I continue to perceive even when I know what colour the dress really is.

    What the dress illustrates is that humans are not consciously aware of the exact colour of what they see – they are only consciously aware of a processed version of those colours where the brain has already done the job of trying to filter out the effect of lighting conditions. And sometimes different people’s brains try to filter out the effect of lighting conditions in different ways.

  • C. Wright  On March 5, 2015 at 1:14 am

    Maybe I should have clarified that I’m assuming that everyone’s perceptions are fairly automatic and not the result of a lot of conscious thought.

    You can’t ignore or dismiss my idea that there is a clear semantic or linguistic or something distinction between the idea of the colours of the dress as an object and the idea of the colours of the dress as depicted in that particular photo, because the two different colour sets have a colour that falls into two different common-sense colour categories according to whether the dress is viewed in or out of that photo. Under normal viewing conditions the dress has a lot of what we would all call black in it, while in that photo there objectively is no black to be seen but for background items and perhaps shadows on the dress. I’m hoping at least you and I can agree that the play of the light has made it obvious to many the difference between an object and a photo of an object.

    The more I think about it the more I suspect that everyday knowledge of fashions and cultural conventions to do with colour and fashion have influenced people in both the white and gold and the blue and black camps. Sewing has been a hobby of mine on-and-off for many years, and I’d be willing to bet black lace trim is a commonly-stocked item in any haberdashery dept, and has been forever, with golden-coloured lace trim much less commonly-found, metallic-gold lace trim less common, and golden-brown coloured lace trim an item one would be most unlikely to find in any sewing dept. White and gold or ivory and gold are colour combinations that one might find at weddings. Maybe people seriously see in stereotype colours, through a filter of cultural expectations, and are unable to accurately describe colours that are objectively there in light or pigments in a photo. I think this sounds like a quite horrible way of perceiving the world, but I guess those affected wouldn’t know the difference, and possibly negotiate the world more adeptly than I. I reject the radically relativistic idea offered by some that colours do not really exist. If you and I sat down together to look at some paint colour sample cards from a local hardware store, I’m sure we could reach a good level of agreement on how to name those colours. As a grapheme to colour synaesthete I’m 200% certain that exact colours do objectively exist in space and can continue to do so for many decades unaltered, as this is the situation of the exact and unique colours that exist in my mind of colours of letters of the alphabet and many numbers. This has been scientifically proven true when I did the Synesthesia Battery with scores very clearly those of a genuine synaesthete. Every time you ask me, the letter H is exactly the same colour, and if you asked me 30 years ago I’m sure I would have given the exact same answer. There is no play of light inside my neurons and synapses to muddle, tint or shade colours. My synaesthesia colours are coded precisely and permanently, and I can see them any time that I care to look inwards. I’m arguing against relativists that colours really do exist, in my mind, in a way that science can prove. Probably enough to make a philosopher fall off his or her seat.

    I discussed this dress with a close relative who is a black and bluer, and we both think the other defective in the head, even though I’m pretty sure we are both coloured-letter synaesthetes. It is a worry.

    “What the dress illustrates is that humans are not consciously aware of the exact colour of what they see…”

    I feel that I could be more of an exception to that than most people, because I love and enjoy colour so much, and always have, ever since I was little.

    Do you go to a lot of weddings, Tomas?

  • Tomas  On March 5, 2015 at 5:33 am

    I’d be interested in how you perceive the three pictures in this article in Wired.

    There are three pictures, with the original one in the middle, and the other two with adjusted colour balance to accentuate the white/gold and blue/black.

    For me, the one on the right is clearly blue and black, whereas the two on the left are basically white and gold with different shades. But others see the one in the middle as blue/black, and some people see all three as white and gold.

    I’m not convinced that the perceptions are influenced by prior expectations of what the dress should look like. Even actually knowing what the dress looks like doesn’t seem to affect how people perceive it.

    On a rather different subject, since you mention Synaesthesia, I wonder if you have seen. “A critical review of the neuroimaging literature on synesthesia.” Jean-Michel Hupé and Michel Dojat. Available free online if you google it.

    There’s a lot there, and I haven’t read it all yet, but looks interesting.

  • C. Wright  On March 9, 2015 at 11:55 am

    Those three photos in Wired magazine; the first looks white and gold, the second looks exactly as it is, as is shown in the “RGB” colour sample things, that is greyish mauveish blue colours and warm browns, and the last dress looks black and a deep, saturated blue. I guess this shows that most people saw colours that are a logical leap from the colours in the original photo, but I’m still disturbed that I seem to be in a minority in reporting the colours that are actually there in the photo. “We asked our ace photo and design team to do a little work with the image in Photoshop, to uncover the actual red-green-blue composition of a few pixels.” Why do you need Photoshop to do this? JUST LOOK WITH YOUR EYES, for heaven’s sake! SEE THE COLOURS! Visual perception might be all about context and visual stimuli, but colours themselves are not relative, they are unique and measurable and can be percieved (by some!) exactly as they are, in any context.

    Thanks Tomas for letting me know about the article and the review. I just wish I had more time for reading these days.

  • C. Wright  On March 15, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    Thanks again Tomas! That review paper has given me a lot to think about, well worth reading (a lot of it at least). I’ve got a bit of history that isn’t good history linked to the journal that has accepted that paper, but I’ll try to overlook that issue and consider the paper on its merits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: