clock menu more-arrow no yes

Color perception scientist says he's never seen anything like the color-changing dress

As the internet tears itself apart arguing over tumblr user swiked's mysterious color-changing dress, which appears white and gold to some people but blue and black to others, Vice managed to reach a scientist who studies color vision.

http://swiked.tumblr.com/post/112174461490/officialunitedstates-unclefather

Jay Neitz, PhD, of the University of Washington seemed like the person who could finally explain this baffling dress, and thus put our long national nightmare to an end. Alas, even Neitz, despite offering a solid-sounding theory, seems unable to fully explain it.

Colored lighting, Neitz said, can change how you perceive colors within that light. He cites, as an example, a red Volkswagon that looked white to him when it was lit by red brake lights.

Tumblr user swiked, who saw the dress in person, says it was blue and black. Neitz suggests that the photo may have been taken in bluish light, which could make it appear white. But, as Vice writers Arielle Pardes and Mike Pearl explain, and Neitz acknowledges, that does not explain why two people might look at the same photo and see entirely different thingsHere are Vice's Pardes and Pearl:

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," Neitz told Vice. "But this is a huge difference." He joked, "Now I'm going to spend the rest of my life working on this. I thought I was going to cure blindness, but now I guess I'll do this."

In other words, even a very plausible sounding theory, presented by a scientist who literally studies color perception, appears unable to fully explain the phenomenon of the color-changing dress.

That said, neuroscientist Bevil Conway of Wellesley College, speaking to Wired, did seem able to take Neitz's approach another step to fully make sense of it. He suggests the answer may have to do with light, as Neitz says, but Conway gets more specific.

"What's happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you're trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis," Conway told Wired. "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."

That's not to endorse Conway as absolutely right, but it does show that Neitz may be on the right track, though it's still telling that even he didn't feel confident in stating that he'd figured it out.

Further reading: The color-changing dress, explained