The Science of Color and “That Dress”

The Science of Color and “That Dress”

In February 2015, a simple picture taken by a Mother of the Bride of a potential outfit went viral.

A very simple question about the colour of a dress almost broke the internet. Everyone, from Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift to Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, was caught up in a social media debate which divided the planet into two hashtags; #blackandblue or #whiteandgold.

We’ve all seen the pictures and similar optical illusions which can be interpreted in more than one way. As the controversy over “that dress” raged across the internet, the manufacturers revealed that it was indeed a blue dress with black lace trim.

So why were so many of us convinced that the dress was white, with gold trim?

Filling In The Blanks

The phenomenon of “the dress” is a great example of how our brains process information which is gathered through our Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 15.02.25 eyes. We don’t even realise that when we look at something, our brains are interpreting the images and the colors based on many different variables, including past experience, lighting, time of day and other reference points. In cases where the information is incomplete, the brain fills in the blanks to interpret what is being seen. For example, if you have a favorite white sweater which you wear outside at sunset, where everything is tinged pink, you still see it as white because your brain remembers what it is supposed to look like and draws on its experience. This phenomenon is known as color constancy.

Color Constancy and That Dress

W13507_01_Sense-organs-as-a-window-to-the-world-Interactive-CD-ROMWhen looking at the photograph of the dress however, there just wasn’t enough information for everyone’s brains to perceive the color in the same way. Depending on the subconscious assumptions that brains were making about the lighting behind the dress determined the way in which people saw the color. This internet viral phenomenon has sparked several academic studies into color perception, using the original picture of the dress. In one study, 57% of people saw the dress as black and blue, 30% as white and gold, and 13% as other color combinations. Scientists believe the people seeing the dress as blue assumed the photo had been taken in daylight, whereas those seeing it as white assumed the lighting was artificial. An age bias was also noticed, with a higher percentage of older people seeing the dress as white. This is thought to be because of the way our eyes process different wavelengths of light and color as we get older.

Other Optical Illusions

My_Wife_and_My_Mother-in-Law Although perhaps the most famous of recent years, there are numerous other optical illusions or clever pictures which can be interpreted in more than one way. Perhaps the most famous of these is a drawing by cartoonist W E Hill entitled “My Wife and My Mother In Law” which was first published in 1915. When looking at the drawing for the first time, people either see an old woman with a bonnet and a hooked nose, or a younger, prettier woman looking away over her shoulder. Either interpretation of the picture is valid. What people see will depend on how their brain interprets the picture. Only when the alternative explanation is demonstrated can many people see the other picture hidden within the first. This phenomenon is called Pictographic Ambiguity and again relies on our brains filling in the gaps to make sense of the information being received through the eyes.

3D Drawings and Trompe L’Oeil

Optical illusions are nothing new, although in the internet age pictures can circulate a lot more quickly than in the past. The tradition of trompe l’oeil, which translates from French as “trick of the eye” goes back to Ancient Greece where legend has it that famous artist Parrhasius painted a curtain so realistic that people tried to draw it back. Renaissance artists loved the idea of making things appear realistic when they are not, with ceilings appearing to open up to the heavens or windows being painted with people hiding on the other side.

Nowadays, the trick of the eye technique is still in use, mainly by street artists who are skilled at making it look as if holes appear in pavements, or whole new rooms appear behind a plain brick wall. This type of work is eternally popular, and testament to both the creativity of the artists and their understanding of how to use 3D and perspective to maximum effect.

Have you ever tried to create optical illusions in your science class?  We love these great street illusions!

Optical illusion



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