Blue and Black? Or Gold and White?

image of a striped dress hanging on a rack

When you look at this picture, do you see a blue and black dress, or a gold and white dress? Or maybe something sort of in-between, like light blue and orange?

In case you didn't celebrate your net neutrality last night by joining in with the entire internet to weigh in on the color of this dress, let me fill you in: Some people look at the above picture and see a blue dress with black stripes, and some people look at the above picture and see a white dress with gold stripes. And people are very convinced that they are right!

(The dress is actually blue and black.)

One might be inclined to suggest that what someone sees depends on the light and color settings of the posted photo, except here's the thing: If you've done this experiment with other people in the room with you, or with people looking at the exact same photo on social media, different people will look at the same photo and see different things!

In fact, even looking at the same version on the same site at different times can yield different results. Last night, I looked at the same image at different times, and I would see blue and black one time, and gold and white another.

It seemed to me that what colors I saw depended on at what I'd been looking just before, and in what light. And that makes sense, based on Wired's explainer of the science:
The fact that a single image could polarize the entire Internet into two aggressive camps is, let's face it, just another Thursday. But for the past half-day, people across social media have been arguing about whether a picture depicts a perfectly nice bodycon dress as blue with black lace fringe or white with gold lace fringe. And neither side will budge. This fight is about more than just social media—it's about primal biology and the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see color in a sunlit world.

Light enters the eye through the lens—different wavelengths corresponding to different colors. The light hits the retina in the back of the eye where pigments fire up neural connections to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes those signals into an image. Critically, though, that first burst of light is made of whatever wavelengths are illuminating the world, reflecting off whatever you're looking at. Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the "real" color of the object. "Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance," says Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington. "But I've studied individual differences in color vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I've ever seen." (Neitz sees white-and-gold.)
Right now, looking at the image of the top of the page, I see dark blue and black. What do you see?

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