Thoughts & Views: Dressed to kill (my brain cells)

Unless you have been hibernating with the groundhogs, you recognize the photo that accompanies this column. However, for the few of you who have just stuck your heads out from the burrow, I shall explain:

Last week, a woman in Scotland posted that picture on the internet. She had attended a wedding, and that was the dress worn by the mother of the bride.

Within hours, it became a worldwide sensation. Not because of the design, but because of the colors. Or more specifically, because of how the colors were perceived.

The actual dress was blue and black. But many people (myself included) saw it as being white and gold. The debate was passionate. Blue/black vs. white/ gold made Yankees vs. Red Sox look like a playground rivalry.

Please note: I have no idea if the color perception differs in the newsprint image. Probably not. You have to view the original photo on a screen — computer, tablet, cell phone.

And this is why the whole thing is so weird. People looking at the same photo on the same screen at the same time apparently saw different colors.

(News 12 even ran a poll: 48% of the viewers saw white and gold; 19%, blue and black; and 33% chose the third option, “Who cares? It’s ugly.”)

There is supposedly a scientific explanation for the controversy, but I don’t trust science. For instance, I have heard scientists say that gravity is not a very strong force. If that were true, wouldn’t all the fat people on Earth go spinning off into the universe?

Anyway, here is the explanation provided by a neuroscientist and posted on the wesbite www.Wired.com:

“Light enters the eye through the lens — different wavelengths corresponding to different colors. The light hits the retina in the back of the eye, where pigments fire up neural connections to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes those signals into an image.

“Critically, though, that first burst of light is made of whatever wavelengths are illuminating the world, reflecting off whatever you’re looking at. Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at and essentially subtracts that color from the ‘real’ color of the object.

“Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance.”

Got it now?

We heard a simpler explanation offered by an ophthamologist, who said, “At the heart of this debate is the light balance of the camera. The light source plays a major factor in how we’re going to perceive that color.”

Grrrrr. I still can’t grasp why people looking at the same photo taken by a single camera with the same light source — those people then viewing the photo under a common light source — see such a wild difference.

Another doctor said simply, “People perceive colors differently.” Yes, we know that. Some people can’t differentiate between purple and deep blue.

But confusing blue and black with white and gold?

There is further dress-related scientific data all over the web, so investigate and be enlightened. You are probably smarter than I am. My neural connections are already overwhelmed.

However, I am sure this will all bring repercussions. Somebody somewhere is going to run a red light and then offer the explanation that he saw green.

– Karen Zautyk 

The Observer Staff