The Science Behind the Black and Blue Dress

The Science Behind the Black and Blue (or White and Gold?) Dress

Date posted: March 9, 2015   |   Tagged with:

Science Behind the Black and Blue DressBy now, you’ve heard of the mysterious black and blue dress. For a few good days, it swept the internet by storm passed around on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, emails and message boards. During its time in the spotlight, this ‘optical illusion’ somehow became philosophical, making people rethink well they perceive the world around them. Not since Rorschach has something so large sprouted from the startlingly simple question: “What do you see?” Some people surely see white and gold in the dress. Some certainly see black and blue. Some see varying shades of those colors at certain angles of light. How does it work? Well, read on.

The dress is literally blue and black, but as the photo was poorly exposed – this is the world we live in with cell phone cameras – many will see white and gold. Either the photo was overexposed – that is, overly drowned in light – or underexposed – that is, shot with not enough light – and our perception of that difference is decided by wavelengths and nerve endings and chromatic axes.

Simply, It’s Science.

Color is about perception and that perception is an interpretation of the light shooting around the universe. Those who know their way around a nucleotide explain that this interpretation is molded by a delicate balance of the cells in our eyes. To elucidate – or, perhaps, confuse – further, everyone’s eyes possesses retinas which are the things that let you see and interpret shades – like white, grey and black – and colors. There are rods and cones that slightly jot from these retinas and give your eyes that textured look in the color. The rods perceive shade. The cones perceive color. And that information is passed to the brain. Now, those cones only switch on when a requisite amount of light passes through them. While some will see the blue, others have cones that need more lighting and thus do not perceive the color. The rods in their eyes, on the other hand, see shade: white.

In the black part that some interpret as gold, we look to something dubbed additive mixing. In elementary school, we learned about the primary colors – red, blue and yellow. Well, the primary colors for additive mixing are red, blue and green and are are the colors the cones in your eyes are sensitive to. Now, in art class, you probably ran into subtractive mixing. That is, you plopped on so many colors the portrait eventually turned murky and black. If you’ve followed along, you’ll realize that when you in fact add those three primary colors your cones see best, it’ll make a pure white in contrast to subtractive mixing.

So, let’s lay it out. If you’re seeing white and gold in the black and blue dress, the cones in your eyes don’t react to dim lighting so the retinas see white in the blue part. Due to the lack of sensitivity in your cones, you’ll experience additive mixing of the colors green and red and see gold in the black part.

What do you see? It’s all in the interpretation. As they say, perception is reality and our brains – being the only way we consciously perceive the world around us – hold all the power. Even if you tried, as some did, to definitively answer this question of color by uncovering the specific red-blue-green composition of the individual pixels in the photo, you would still be trapped by the fact your brain – through your eyes – projects a context, a black or white background, to the image which in turn will change what color those red-green-blue values end up as. As this context is changed, so is your perception. So is your reality.

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