When, in 2015, The Dress went viral – prompting tens of millions of online viewers to existential scams whether the garment was blue and black or white and gold – it not only broke the internet, but also shattered the color science, as did researchers
So far, scientists have never seen such a wide difference of opinion about the color of an object. A popular hypothesis why people have seen the dress differently is the constancy of colors – a perceptual phenomenon whereby an object seems to remain more or less the same color, regardless of the lighting conditions under which you see it. This is an incredible feature of human vision, albeit one that researchers have long used against you in the form of visual illusions. Take this picture, for example, which was created by Japanese psychologist Akiyoshi Kitaoka:
The fruits look red, right? They are not. In fact, there are no red pixels in this image. Come on, check it out. Try using your hands or a few sheets of paper to cover everything except a handful of strawberries. Tripy, right?
As with the dress, the factors of color constancy in the explanation. But unlike this dress, almost everyone perceives Kitaoka fruits as red. There is no ambiguity, no fierce disagreement, no philosophical attacks. Just a fascinating scam and a healthy one at this: Even when you know that there are no red pixels, you can't help but see the fruits as red.
The illusion of the dress was just as strong. Mostly. People who saw clothing as blue and black tended to only see it as blue and black. But the dress could also be fun. Each time, without warning, the colors that one perceives can change, causing even more existential cramps and additional scientific intrigue.
For the last episode of our series on the science of illusions, we invited Stanford neurologist David Idelman to help us deal with the constancy of colors: how it allows you to see the true color of an object, even in changing light; how it also makes you susceptible to fraud; and what researchers believe can happen in viral pictures with ambiguous color illusions like The Dress. Or Shoes. (What? Don't tell me you haven't seen the shoes …)
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