Sure, science may have made a new leap forward on the origins of the universe, but, more importantly, scientists were called upon to tell us about the color of a dress on Tumblr.
In case you missed out on #TheDress drama, a picture of the garment in question went viral on Thursday when a Tumblr user asked people to help her identify the dress’s color. Some people saw white and gold, others saw blue and black. And the divide drove people crazy.
So, how could so many people see such different colors? One explanation comes from the video at the top of this post, which ascribes the phenomenon to something called “color constancy,” where our brains compensate for differences in lighting and white-balance by automatically filling in information.
PEOPLE spoke to Jason Silva, the host of Nat Geo’s Brain Games, who offered us a rapid-fire, extraordinarily deep explanation for what’s happening with #TheDress. “The largest takeaway,” he explained by phone, “Is that color exists in your brain. It’s not an objective feature of reality.”
Silva explained color constancy to us, sounding, frankly, a little like Morpheus in The Matrix. “We don’t see the world objectively as is, we see the world through the lens of our preconceptions, cultural operating systems … reality is coupled to perception, so change perception, you change reality. Whatever situation people were in when they saw the picture of that dress, it changed their perception of the dress.”
“You never have a direct experience,” Silva continued. “You never experience an objective reality. Your brain is shielded from the world by this box that is your skull, all it’s doing is receiving a signal and interpreting it, like a cable box does for a television. What you call the world is more like a TV screen in your mind.” [Insert GIF of mind actually exploding]
Silva quoted Solvenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek at one point: “There’s no such thing as virtual reality, there is only real virtuality,” explaining that “if any simulation becomes real enough, it takes the place of what we perceive to be objective reality,” comparing it to The Matrix and Inception.
For a rough approximation of what it’s like to have Jason Silva peel back the layers of your mind on the phone, please watch this video.
Wired also talked to Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, who called #DressGate “one of the biggest individual differences [in color vision] I’ve ever seen.” (For the record, he sees white and gold.)
Buzzfeed spoke to John Borghi, a cognitive neuroscientist at Rockefeller University. He expanded on Silva’s comments, saying our vision is controlled by “top-down processing,” which “begins with the brain and flows down, filtering information through our experience and expectations to produce perceptions,” meaning the entirety of your brain’s information and knowledge could be influencing the images your eyes are receiving, a phenomenon called “priming.”
So the sum total of all this? Your brain – not your eyes – is at fault for the discrepancy, though the original photo’s color correction probably doesn’t help.
Once again, we’d like to stress that the girl who took the picture, 21-year-old Caitlin McNeil, says the dress is blue and black. The garment, from Roman Originals, is also identified as blue and black on the retailer’s website.
We’ll just chalk this up to poor photo quality. You can catch Brain Games on Mondays on Nat Geo.