Blue or White Dress? Why We See Colors Differently

In viral debate over dress’ true color, scientists explain why our brains see objects differently.

By now, just about everyone who’s paying attention knows the dress is really royal blue and black.

A viral debate on social media, which began Thursday night, continued Friday about whether a dress worn recently to a Scottish wedding was actually blue and black or white and gold.

For those who see white, it’s still tough to wrap their heads around the idea that their color perception is so totally off.

Many resort to denial.

Joseph Rizzo, a professor and neuro-ophthalmologist at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, began by explaining that it’s the wavelengths of light reflected into the back of the eye that produce the sensation of color. The light that reaches our eyes is affected by the material we’re looking at, the ambient light bouncing off the material and some subtle personal differences.

From this day on, the world will be divided into two people: blue and black, or white and gold.

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After taking another look at the dress, though, Rizzo didn’t buy his own explanation.

“Seeing this dramatic difference strikes me as very odd,” he said, struggling himself to see anything but white and gold. “Maybe there were two women at the same party wearing similar dresses.”

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Neal Adams, an ophthalmologist in private practice in Silver Spring, MD, had no such conflict. He naturally saw the dress as blue and black.

“These phenomenon are well known to occur, where people perceive differently or where people perceive what we think is one set of colors or images, when in reality it’s something different,” said Adams, author of Healthy Vision: Prevent and Reverse Eye Disease through Better Nutrition

The optical illusion, he said, is explained by looking at graphs of thephotoreceptor absorption spectra, which shows how the eye perceives color. If light skews in one direction, a color looks blue-black. In another, it looks yellow-white. Adams said cataracts or amber-colored glasses can slightly distort light and lead people to misperceive colors.

Daniel Oprian, a professor of biochemistry at Brandeis University, who studies the spectra, said the dress debate “has really brought home the fact, in a very personal way for many people, that there really are no colors out there in the outside world.” Colors, he said, “are something we make up in our heads. That usually makes students a little uncomfortable when they first hear it.”

The dress came to the public’s attention when a woman who attended the Scottish wedding posted a picture of it on her Tumblr account. She was confused when friends saw it as a different color combination than she did.

The attention it earned in the first half hour—including comments like “if that’s not gold my entire life has been a lie”—won it a berth onBuzzFeed, where it quickly sparked a global debate. As of Friday afternoon, it had been viewed more than 28 million times, according to The New York Times.

Other photos of the Lace Bodycon Dress, which sells for 50 pounds or about $77, show that it comes in only four color combinations: royal blue and black, red and black, white and black and pink and black—but not white and gold.

So, some see blue and black; others see white and gold. Does this difference say anything significant about us?

Nope, said Adams. Sometimes a blue dress is just a blue dress.

The difference in perception, he said, “doesn’t [offer] profound information about us or our personalities, or anything more meaningful about our lives.”