tumblr_nkcjuq8Tdr1tnacy1o1_500Personally, I don’t understand why some people are so annoyed by the “What Color is this Dress?” optical illusion that has been dominating the internet  for the past few days. All right, so it’s not worth ending friendships, but it’s actually a lot more interesting than, for instance, a provocative picture of Kim Kardashian, or some of the other images that have briefly taken over the entirety of pop culture.

In the extremely unlikely event that anyone reading this hasn’t yet encountered the “What Color is this Dress?” story, here’s what happened. It started at a wedding, when the mother of the bride wore a black and dark blue dress. (Sorry, team white and gold.) She posted a picture on facebook, which Tumblr user swiked shared on Tumblr this past Wednesday, frantically asking what colors people saw, since she and her friends disagreed.  Some said blue and black, some said white and gold.  Tumblr went crazy, as tumblr has a tendency to do, and the story spread to Twitter, garnering attention as celebrities weighed in on the debate. That’s when Buzzfeed got ahold of the story. The story showed up there at 6:14 PM, and the story  was quickly the most popular thing on the internet. It was by far the biggest Buzzfeed article, #thedress was the top twitter hashtag, people shared the picture on facebook, and basically every news website in existence latched onto the story… all by midnight that same day. It was about 9:00 PM, just as I was leaving work, that a couple of my coworkers alerted me to the phenomenon by asking me what color I saw. (White and gold, for the record.)

And in case anyone hasn’t heard the explanation for why different people see different colors, it basically goes like this. Everyone sees the same image. Everyone notices—even if only subconsciously—that the color quality of the picture is imperfect, due to shadows. Some of our brains latch onto that slight color distortion and just assume that it’s a bigger deal than it is. “Interesting,” our brains say, “The lighter parts look dark blue. What color are shadows? Dark blue. So, if we mentally edit the shadow out of the picture, what’s left? White. That’s it; white dress. What about the dark parts? Well, they look black. But shadows make every darkish color look black. But you see that part that looks a little yellow-tinged at the top? It must be gold! We have decoded the shadows!” Our brains then go on to pat themselves on the back, metaphorically speaking, and proudly announce to us that the dress is white and gold. And we believe them. We don’t even realize that our eyes initially saw something else. Meanwhile, other people, presumably including some of you who are reading this, have brains that take a different approach. “Interesting,” their brains say. “The lighter parts look dark blue. They must be dark blue. And the darker parts look black. They must be black.” Some people see something in between the two examples, such as light blue and gold. When I asked my grandmother this morning, she saw white and a dark color, but she didn’t see gold until I told that that’s what a lot of people see. A few people, including me and my sister, are capable of seeing it either way. (Although I have to make a deliberate effort to see it as black and blue; my visual cortex still tells me I’m supposed to see white and gold.)

Of course, that’s the super non-technical version. If you want a more detailed explanation, a quick Google search will give you several. Or just take my recommendation and read the one from Wired. What I’m interested in is what causes that difference. Does it have anything to do with the shape or health of the eyeball or optic nerve? Could it possibly have anything to do with personality? For instance, I’m more than a bit of a perfectionist and overachiever, so could that have anything to do with why my brain doesn’t want to take the easy route and take the black and blue at face value? I don’t think that personality works that way; it doesn’t make sense for it to have any control over sensory perception, but what if it does?

I think this is all very interesting. If I had to choose between seeing the internet go crazy over a thought-provoking optical illusion or seeing it go crazy over celebrity gossip, I’d choose the former any day.

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