The Dress (And How Our Own Eyes Fool Us)

It is the dress that broke the internet. Yesterday, thousands (maybe millions) of people are arguing on one thing: is it #blackandblue or #whiteandgold?

It all started with this. And then Buzzfeed blasted The Dress off into internet frenzy.

Hordes of people went crazy for a whole day. Social media set ablaze. Facebook did an analysis on it. Big news media like the New York Times, Billboard, Mashable, Gizmodo, Vice, CNN, DailyMail, Discovery News, Business Insider can’t resist the temptation of The Dress. Even Time made a special segment.

And when celebrities are on it, there was no way of stopping The Dress into a phenomenon.

So, what the hell happened?

Of course, in the end we finally knew the real color (and the price) of The Dress


Amazon’s product page has always been known for its funny comments. This dress might’ve just win it.


But more importantly is, of course, not about the real color of the dress. But rather about why we see the same image so differently?

I’ve read explanations offered by several media experts. Even neuron-ophthalmologist weighed in. Explanations offered range from anatomical to physiological to psychological. They all focused on why different sets of people see different sets of color.

But I sincerely found a lot of these explanations unsatisfactory. Why?

Yesterday morning, when the I first saw The Dress, I was very convinced about the color. It was white and gold. I was perplexed that other people actually saw it differently.

Them a few hours later, just a few minutes after lunch, I saw the photo again on my phone. It was frigging changed! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe my brain. It was black and blue.

All those experts opinion simply vanished out of my mind. Of course I didn’t experience a sudden change of my physiology.

On an article, a neuron-ophthalmologist (doctors who check your eyes and visual nerves) suggested there’s a connection of seeing different colors to dominant brain hemisphere. I don’t think my dominant hemisphere can change in a few hours.

Especially when I see The Dress as white and gold again in the evening!

I said to myself, there must be a trigger. And if there’s a trigger, other people can use it too. People who see it in black-and-blue can be induced to see it in white-and-gold. Vice versa. Unless of course that person is partially color-blind or don’t have optimum color cell receptors.

I was on a mission.


Pixel Analysis

To be really sure about the colors of The Dress, I turned to one of the most reliable perception machines: computer. After running the photo to an image processing software, this is the result I got.



Clearly these colors aren’t blue-black or white-gold. At least not like what we had in mind when we saw it. Let’s take another look of this palette on other contexts.


So why were we so convinced that the dress was actually black-and-blue or white-and-gold? Why were we so sure about what we saw that we ended up having arguments with other people?


Cone Cells

Our eyes are light receptors. We see using our brain. The brain processes light impulses triggered by light reaching the back of our eyes. The image we see is how our brain interpret that light.

The receptors responsible for sending stimuli to brain regarding colors are the cone cells. About cone cell, from Wikipedia:

Cone cells, or cones, are one of the two types of photoreceptor cells that are in the retina of the eye which are responsible for color vision as well as eye color sensitivity; they function best in relatively bright light, as opposed to rod cells that work better in dim light.

Cones are less sensitive to light than the rod cells in the retina (which support vision at low light levels), but allow the perception of colour. They are also able to perceive finer detail and more rapid changes in images, because their response times to stimuli are faster than those of rods.[5]

Humans normally have three kinds of cones. The first responds the most to light of long wavelengths, peaking at a reddish colour; this type is sometimes designated L for long. The second type responds the most to light of medium-wavelength, peaking at a green colour, and is abbreviated M for medium. The third type responds the most to short-wavelength light, of a bluish colour, and is designated S for short. The three types have peak wavelengths near 564–580 nm, 534–545 nm, and 420–440 nm, respectively, depending on the individual.

We can only see specific wavelengths of light, and they are called visible light. This chart shows the whole spectrum of light.

quality of a light source - from

The same object can be seen differently, as explained so beautifully in Cosmos’ episode Hiding in The Light.



Look at this picture of the White House:


Just a large house painted white, right?

How about this one:

Workers conduct demolition on the White House's North Lawn

Still painted white, right?

When we look at both pictures, our brain instantly tells us that that house is indeed white. But when we analyze the files of both pictures, especially the night version, we will realize that the pixels aren’t white (#FFFFFF). Most likely, they will be light grey, dark grey, cream shades, and even gold.

This is how evolution has shaped our brain. We are accustomed to translating the effect of light to objects throughout the day. We instantly know how colors would look like on different times of the day. This ability helped ancient humans in recognizing their environment and spot danger. We automatically discounted certain spectrum out of the images we see.


pareidolia-peppers-l pareidolia-seeing-faces-5-400x267


Another type of visual perception trait we gained from evolution is pareidolia.


When the brain considers the context of the image was dark, it makes the image seems lighter. The same thing happens when it considers the context of the image was light. This brain short-circuit is what caused the famous dark-grey light-grey optical illusion.


The upper box and the lower box are of the same color.



What we perceive in our brain is the result of complex physiological and psychological from thousand of years of evolution. The way we “see” The Dress inside our brains is affected by many factors, possibly: cone cell fatigue, color afterimage, color constancy, chromatic discount, et cetera.

After putting all these factors into consideration, I decided to do an experiment using this small web-app to test my hypothesis. Much like the reason why pirates wear eye-patch, I believe we can try to induce the way we perceive The Dress.

The reason why some people constantly sway between different sets of colors is due to the wavelength and intensity of light their eyes received prior to looking at the picture. After looking at wavelengths near the black-blue region with low intensity for some amount of time, The Dress appears white-gold.

I have tested the app several times and I am receiving expected results with a high degree of precision. So currently, my hypothesis is the best explanation I can get.

Our eye is a marvelous wonder of evolution. A very vital organ for every human being. It’s perfect for our survival. But it’s not a perfect device. It is still a work in progress.

Compared to dog’s eyes,- which has limited spectrum compared to human, consisting mostly of yellows, blues, and violets -, ours are superior. But compared to an eagle, then ours are far inferior. If we swapped our eyes for an eagle’s, we can see an ant crawling on the ground from the top of a 10-stories building. Objects directly in our line of sight would appear magnified. Everything would be brilliantly colored, rendered in an inconceivable array of shades.

The photo of The Dress is perfectly ambiguous. We perceive it using a not-so-perfect machine. Thus we were experiencing a modern day phenomenal frenzy. Something that we will talk about years from now. The day a £50 dress broke the internet. Sorry, Kim.


“Blind man sees wife first time in decade using bionic eye.” Link.

“Color controversies on Mars sky.” Link.

“Color Constancy”


Other Famous Optical Illusions

The Subway

You can make the subway switches from going forward or backward using your mind.

the subway


The Dancer

Some people see The Dancer rotates clockwise, others see her rotates counter-clockwise. Clue on how to see different rotations.

the dancer


Color Afterimage

From Wikipedia:

Sensitivity to a prolonged stimulation tends to decline over time, leading to neural adaptation. An interesting effect occurs when staring at a particular color for too long. Such action leads to an exhaustion of the cone cells that respond to that color – resulting in the afterimage. This vivid color aftereffect can last for a minute or more.[19]


Complementary Colors


Gold-orange is complimentary to blue.

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