#Dressgate: ODs explain why people see this dress in different colors

February 27, 2015

Social media exploded Thursday evening after a user of Tumblr, a blogging site, shared a photo of a dress and asked its color. Simple enough question, you say, but it started a raging debate centered around two camps of people: those who say the dress is white and gold (like the Optometry Times editors) and those who say the dress is blue and black (who we think are wrong).


Social media exploded Thursday evening after a user of Tumblr, a blogging site, shared a photo of a dress and asked its color. Simple enough question, you say, but it started a raging debate centered around two camps of people: those who say the dress is white and gold (like the Optometry Times editors) and those who say the dress is blue and black (who we think are wrong).

The debate was so intense that all of the majornewssites picked up the story, and #dressgate and #thedress were trending topics on Twitter for hours.

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“The morning talk shows were abuzz with this,” says Optometry Times Chief Optometric Editor Ernie Bowling, OD, FAAO. “I'm no color vision expert by any means, but it's nice this has people talking about vision. From what I've read, it seems one's perception is a matter of background lighting and context. Changing eye physiology may have something to do with it as well.”

 

Debate within the eyecare community

So, what causes this phenomenon? We asked some experts and found out there was a debate among the eyecare community, as well.

The general consensus among the ODs we spoke with was that the low resolution of the cellphone camera photo and the lighting in the store definitely play a role in the strange color disparity. Others said that if they adjusted the brightness of their phone’s screen or computer’s monitor, they could see the other colors.

Optometry Times Editorial Advisory Board member Diana Shechtman, OD, FAAO, says Mach bands (exaggerated contrasts between edges on slightly different shades) and lateral inhibition (the ability of the a retinal cell to reduce the activity of a the neighboring cell) may explain the color differentiation.

“Our brain is tuned to detect edges, which may contribute to variations in contrast. Basically, things are not always black and white,” says Dr. Shechtman.

“If you observe the variations in the colors of the dress, you will also note that the background illumination in the picture varies. Using lateral inhibition, the background illumination modulates the retinal cells sensing the colors of the dress and inhibiting the complement color (to some degree). 

“Hence, one may see it as more blue or more yellow (complement of blue). Again, this is based upon the luminance of the background and the sense at the edge (between the luminance background and the dress),” she says.

Optometry Times Editorial Advisory Board member Leo Semes, OD, FAAO, says there is another explanation-complementary chromatopsia-although he says it is highly unlikely.

“For those who remember green letters on a grey computer screen, some experienced an afterimage that everything white was tinged pink,” he says. “This was a transient phenomenon but persisted with repeated exposures. I was a ‘victim.’”

For the record, Dr. Semes sees the dress in white and gold.

Next: The science behind #dressgate and color interpretation

 

The science behind #dressgate and color interpretation

But it was Patricia Cisarik, OD, of the Southern College of Optometry, who may have the most solid explanation. She says that people perceive color differently because color is interpreted by the brain, and while our interpretations of that information are similar, they are not exact.

“When viewing a patch of grass on a bright sunny day, those of us without a congenital color vision anomaly or an acquired problem affecting the normal perceptual process would say that the grass looks ‘green,’” says Dr. Cisarik. “But, does each person perceive that green exactly the same? Some factors external to us and some factors internal to us will influence the color we as individuals perceive. Also important to keep in mind is that the brain is very suggestible, meaning that we see what our experience tells us we should see.”

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She says there are a number of factors that can influence color perception, including:

• What visible wavelengths are being reflected from the different areas of the object being viewed, for example, the dress? Wavelength is a physical attribute of the stimulus that is associated with color perception.

• What is the wavelength composition being reflected toward the viewer’s eyes from the areas around the dress?

• Under what kind of light is the object being viewed? The surrounding light will affect the color perceived.

• Which of these wavelengths are actually getting into the eyes to stimulate the retinas?

• What color(s) was the viewer looking at before looking at the object?

• Does the viewer have any ocular or visual pathway anomalies that affect the transmission of some wavelengths to the rest of the brain but not others? For example, a yellow cataract will reduce the amount of blue light striking the eye from reaching the retina.

• Is the viewer taking any medications or has been exposed to any other chemicals that alter color perception? This alteration can take place anywhere from the eye to the higher areas of the brain.

• What experience does the viewer’s brain bring to the observation? In other words, one’s past experience with similar objects can influence one’s color perception of the object one is currently viewing.

Dr. Cisarik says one of her students reported when she first saw the dress, it looked white and gold to her. After reading that it was really black and blue, the student’s perception of the dress changed when she looked at the picture.

“Assuming she is looking at the same exact picture of the dress (meaning the physical stimulus to her visual system has not changed) and assuming she is viewing the picture under the same lighting conditions, her changed and constant perception of the color of the dress reflects the large influence that brain has on color perception-she consistently perceives the colors she now expects to perceive based on an analysis of the physical attributes of the dress that were described in the article she read,” says Dr. Cisarik. “For her, cognitive influences are now over-riding her previous interpretation.”

But what about those who interpreted the dress’s color one way or the other without having read any descriptions to influence what they saw?

“Why some individuals initially interpret the colors of the dress in the picture as white and gold, while other individuals initially interpret the colors of the dress in the picture as blue and black, is not likely to be discoverable with any technology available today, to my knowledge,” says Dr. Cisarik. “If all other conditions are the same between the two viewers, then the initial colors perceived are likely to be largely influenced by what he or she unconsciously expects to see.”

Meredith Jansen, OD, MS, principal research optometrist with Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, agrees. 

"Even your own perception can change based on numerous factors that range from color consistency, contrast, light and shadow," she says. "Even the height and angle by which you view something can change the way your brain sees it. The visual cortex processes all information viewed by the eyes, and translate it into the visual you see every day.

"So many people are viewing the dress differently because there are unlimited variations as to how the picture of the dress is shown. Some see is as blue and black, others see it as white and gold. The different perceptions are the brain’s understanding of what the eyes see," says Dr. Jansen. 

Next: What color is the dress?

 

What color is the dress?

Sorry, team white and gold. The dress detectives at BuzzFeed seem to have tracked down the original dress, and it’s blue and black.