On Thursday the Internet erupted into a serious debate over the colors of a Roman dress. Is it black and blue or white and gold? Everyone from Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian weighed in with differing opinions, driving us into a BUT WHYYYY childlike tailspin. Well, guys, the peeps over at Wired may have an answer.
According to writer Adam Rogers, “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.”
What’s happening in this case, is every person who looks at this photo has a visual system that discounts what Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College, calls “the chromatic bias of the daylight axis.” He says, “People either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.”
When context varies, as in what people are seeing the dress against, so will people’s visual perception, writes Rogers.