Gold and white or blue and black? #TheDress explained

The Dress

Clinical vision scientist, Dr Neil Parry, sheds some light on why millions around the world are confused about the colour of a dress in a photo circulating on the Internet.

“This is an example of a bistable image, like the famous duck/rabbit and face-vase illusions. 

“These illusions are ambiguous and so the brain tries to build a model of the likeliest interpretation.  Sometimes it has prior information, sometimes not.

“This photo is ambiguous because there are clues about the ambient light which may be wrong.  In fact we know it's a badly exposed picture because the original dress is deep blue.

“The washed out background of the image gives the impression that it was taken outside on a bright day.  White reflects the ambient light and so when we are outside, white is actually quite blue when measured by a machine that just reports reflected wavelengths. 

“But the visual system isn't a dumb machine.  There is a phenomenon called colour constancy, which helps keeps our perception constant under widely varying illumination, for example the huge change in the colour of daylight from the  morning (blue) to the evening (red). 

“Because of colour constancy, the bus you get to work in  the morning appears the same colour as the one you take home, even though its physical colour can be changed dramatically by the illuminant.   Colour constancy needs context and the context here is ambiguous. 

“Going back to the dress, if you take the context away (by showing a naive observer a small section of the dress), most people say it’s blue if they haven't already seen the whole picture. 

“When I first saw it I wasn't sure and swayed between blue and white.  But now I know that the dress is definitely deep blue and  the photo is overexposed, I no longer ever perceive it as white. 

“So there is another factor at play and that is prior knowledge.  The visual brain uses models of the world whenever it can to help make sense of what it is seeing. 

“If, instead of a dress, it had been a banana, then, regardless of the illuminant and photographic inaccuracy, it’s more likely to be perceived as yellow, because we all know that that a ripe banana is supposed to be yellow.”

Read more about the University’s vision research here.