Why Do I See This Dress as Blue and Black, While Others See It As White and Gold?

A combination of color and white balance, exposure, and computer displays likely play a role, as well as our own physical perception.

Many of you have probably seen this dress making the Internet rounds—and you either perceive it as blue with black trim, or white with gold/mustard trim (or perhaps you can see both versions). Why do people see it differently?

I emailed Bryan Jones, a retinal neuroscientist at the University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center (with whom SciFri spoke about this mouse eye), to see if he had any inkling. Here’s what he had to say:

“This is actually a potentially interesting area that may have some biological relevance, but it is likely something to do with things like exposure and color balance,” he writes.

When he looked at the image in Photoshop and picked a color to match, he got the hue below. “It looks like a sort of purple to me,” he writes. (Note: the image Jones used was pulled from this Tumblr page, rather than the original.)

Courtesy Bryan Jones


Then Jones did some work in Photoshop to accommodate what he suspects was halogen lighting in the store. By adjusting the white balance, he noticed he could give the dress “a decidedly more blue hue” (see below). That, to him, indicates that the white balance of the camera’s sensor wasn’t aligned with the dress and its surroundings as they were photographed. He couldn’t find any metadata on the image but guesses the camera in this case was on a cell phone, which doesn’t do a good job adjusting for white balance.

Jones also says that the color balance when the image was taken was probably off, “given that it looks like there is some daylight coming in from behind the dress, which can seriously mess with even professional cameras.”

Original image credit: Swiked. Bryan Jones pulled and edited the photo from Chapelle Ardente.


At this point, the photograph itself is already a skewed representation of the real dress. But also consider that lots of people are seeing this picture on many different types of computer displays. “LCD manufacturers will program in different default white points that can vary,” writes Jones, which means that the colors of the dress on one screen might look a bit different than the colors of the dress on another screen.

Okay, so the photograph itself looks different from reality, and a computer screen might further misrepresent its true colors. But that doesn’t account for why two people looking at the same picture on the same screen see different colors, or why one person who first sees the frock as white/gold later sees it as blue/black. “That suggests there are psychophysical issues at play,” writes Jones. “Our moment to moment reality is literally synthesized on the fly, and our brain in some circumstances can decide something is one thing and then another.”

He continues: “Our brain relies on context to inform its decisions, so what people rely on for context in this case may be different. It may be the color/white balance of the image that they rely upon from the background that gives them a context for the color in the foreground,” he writes. “There are also times when our brains will fabricate information that we may be missing to fill in the gaps. For instance, when a baseball pitcher throws a ball, the ball can travel so fast there is not enough time for the visual information to travel from the retina to [the] visual cortex and be interpreted. So, what happens is [that] the brain sees the first few milliseconds of flight, and then computes a model of where it thinks the ball will actually be, informing our perception of where we think the ball is. In the case of color, it may be that there are differences in biology that weight different peoples’ decisions [regarding] what side of the color decision boundary they are [falling].”

And there’s also a chance that people with color blindness—who tend to be male—also see the dress differently. Further, some women have genetic mutations that enable them to see more colors than the average human. (The term for that ability is tetrachromatic.)

Now, time for the unveiling: Here it is. (Two Buzzfeed reporters also think they tracked the dress down to its maker.)

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About Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is a freelance science journalist and the former managing editor of online content for Science Friday.

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