This is the dress which grabbed the attention of everyone, or so it seemed, on the internet in February.
What are the colours? Some see blue and black stripes, others white and gold stripes.
The science journal Current Biology has published three papers on why the image is seen differently. The scientists now call the famous garment, The Dress.
Neuroscientist Bevil Conway says The Dress phenomenon marked the greatest extent of individual differences in colour perception ever documented.
“It caught fire because it was a case in which colour wasn’t doing what we expect,” says Conway, who teaches at Wellesley College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
However, the #whiteandgold versus #blackandblue social media streams don’t count as scientific proof.
So Conway and his team designed an experiment.
In a survey of 1,400, with more than 300 who had never seen The Dress, the researchers found individual differences in colour perception.
People fall into one of three camps: a blue/black camp, a white/gold side and a smaller blue/brown group.
“It could have been the case that you had a continuum of perceived colours, but if you plot the colours people picked, you see two main clumps falling into the two categories for what words people used to describe the colors of The Dress,” says Conway.
By studying the pair of colours in The Dress, there is an answer to an old question: “Do you see colours the way that I see them?” The answer is sometimes: “No.”
Another finding is that perception differs by age and sex.
Older people and women are more likely to see The Dress as white and gold. Younger people say that it is black and blue.
Conway believes the differences may correspond to the type of light brains expect to be in their environment.
Those who see white and gold may have been exposed to natural daylight. Those who see a black and blue dress may spend most of their time surrounded by artificial light. The brains of those who see a brown and blue dress are likely getting something in between.
Another group, led by psychologist Karl Gegenfurtner at Giessen University in Germany, asked 15 people to view the photograph on a calibrated colour screen under controlled lighting.
They then had to adjust the colour to correspond to the colours they see in the photograph. For the lighter stripe, participants reported seeing a continuous range of shades from light blue to dark blue, rather than white and blue.
“The question should thus not be whether the dress is blue or white, but whether it is light blue or dark blue,” writes Gegenfurtner. “Despite the continuous choice of matching colours, observers are consistent in calling the dress white when their match lies above a certain brightness and blue when it lies below.”
Cognitive scientist Michael Webster at the University of Nevada says the dress would probably not have gone viral if it had it been #greenandblack or #orangeandblack.
He believes the photograph is part of a growing body of evidence showing that the human eye is more likely to confuse blue objects with blue lighting.
Webster and his team surveyed 87 college students on what colour they found the light blue stripes to be.
The participants were split fifty-fifty between white and blue. The researchers then inverted the image of the dress so that the black stripes appeared blue and the blue stripes appeared gold. Of those surveyed, nearly 95% said the stripes were yellow or gold.
“We discovered a novel property of colour perception and constancy, involving how we experience shades of blue versus yellow,” Webster and the team write. “We found that surfaces are much more likely to be perceived as white or gray when their colour is varied along bluish directions, compared to equivalent variations along yellowish (or reddish or greenish) directions.”
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