A jacket is doing the rounds on social media because of disagreements about its colour. is it blue and white? Is it black and gold? Take a look at the original tweet by Twitter user ZAYNSMIND:
MY JACKET I BOUGHT IS SO CUTE pic.twitter.com/WpD1FXNK89
— mariam🦇 (@ZAYNSMlND) February 24, 2016
To me it’s the most blue and white thing I’ve ever seen. My brain finds it difficult to accept that anyone sees it differently. Sure enough, another image in better lighting reveals its true colours that everyone can agree on.
Here's another picture of it LMAOO pic.twitter.com/3S3pnyLvkk
— mariam🦇 (@ZAYNSMlND) February 26, 2016
What’s amazing is that while both images look identical to me, others are sceptical that they even show the same jacket. Some people claim that the first image is black and gold while the second is blue and white. This difference in how individuals perceive the colour is surprisingly extreme and reminiscent of “the dress” that went viral in February last year. The dress was black and blue and many people saw it as such, but a considerable number saw it as white and gold. A study that asked 1,400 participants how they perceived the dress showed that 57% saw it accurately as black and blue, 30% saw it as white and gold, and 10% claimed to be able to switch between them.
The dress spread through social media because of how emotional some people got about how they perceived the dress. For me it was the whitest white and the goldest gold I’d ever seen so it was difficult to imagine anyone seeing it as black and blue, yet most people did. Why?
To answer the question of why we see different colours when we look at the jacket or dress, we need to address two different questions. The first is why aren’t we all seeing the true colours. The dress really is black and blue. The jacket really is blue and white. Why is it that in unedited photos with no filters we can get it so drastically wrong? The answer to that question seems to lie in context.
When we look at an object outside, our brains have to take into account the surrounding natural sunlight and control for it when judging the object’s colour. What we experience as colour is just different wavelengths of light. When the light from an object hits our eyes, our brains also judge the wavelengths of surrounding light and subtract from it. Morning, noon, dusk, night… colours are changed all the time and we compensate so that we can always identify them. We do the same thing indoors where the lighting is very different. The famous jacket and dress examples don’t provide a lot of context for the type of light being used in the photo. Is it taken in sunlight? Is it artificial light indoors? Our brains don’t have all the information so we have to make some inferences and can get it quite wrong.
The lack of context in the pictures explains why we can get it wrong but it doesn’t answer the question that’s driving the controversy: why do some of us get it wrong while others don’t? This is a more difficult question but the answer could be very rewarding. The dress and the jacket are of great interest to neuroscientists, particularly those who study colour vision, because never before has there been an example of individual colour differences that is so pronounced. Many optical illusions have been used by researchers in the past but most have the same effect on us all. The dress is different because we can be split into different groups based on how we perceive the dress.
Another study on the dress involved performing MRI scans on participants who were split into two groups reflecting how they saw the dress. All participants reacted in the same way to seeing coloured squares that were either blue, black, gold or white. There’s nothing about the colours themselves that the groups reacted to differently. When shown the dress, however, there were significant differences between both groups.
The people who saw the dress as white and gold had additional activation in areas of the brain often associated with decision-making, selective attention, and image processing. People who saw the dress as black and blue can be happy in the knowledge that they’re right. The people who saw it as white and gold might be interested to know that their brains were working harder.
The work continues and many more studies of the dress are expected to be published this year. We might be sick of seeing the dress by now because of the countless arguments over its colour, but it’s a lot more important than a quirky viral meme. The dress is giving us fresh insights into how the worlds we experience can be quite different due to internal processing within the brain. We all see the same things but we perceive them differently, usually due to our previous experience or biases. Social media has helped bring this useful example to light and the jacket adds to the arsenal. It’s easy to get annoyed that we’re arguing about colours yet again but do take a look and give your opinion, for science!
Main image © Twitter/ZAYNSMIND