Perception broke the internet

I am sure that I am not alone when I have friends and family members approach me with questions related to the eye. Whether it is about their glasses, contact lenses, or any perceptual anomaly, these questions are normally simple in nature and do not pique many outside interests aside from other potential eye care providers.

However, because of the ever expanding popularity of memes and social media outlets that make reaching millions of people easily accessible, a simple visual can “break the internet”.

The infamous dress of 2015

I remember I was in my first year of optometry school when the infamous 2015 dress came into the spotlight. “Gold and white or blue and black? I see one thing and someone else sees the opposite, who is crazy?” The image caused such an uproar that I had so many people in my life reach out from the woodworks to ask me what color the dress actually was and why people were seeing different colors.

It ignited a lot of passion and controversy, this notion that one person’s red was another person’s blue or vice versa. This idea that color depends on the eye of the beholder was absolutely novel and drove some people absolutely bonkers.

The impact of this single image was so great that, since then, many have tried to be the next controversial dress. Examples of such efforts include a pair of sandals, a purse, a flannel shirt, and the very recent image of workout clothes. All of the aforementioned instances achieved marginal success of going viral.

So once and for all, I would like to illuminate why these pictures are so popular and why color perception varies from person to person.

Let’s start with a joke

Why did the optometrists use coupons when buying light bulbs? Because they wanted a discount on the illuminant.

Okay, I hear crickets. Allow me to explain this, though I can almost guarantee that it will still be unfunny afterward. It is this simple equation: L = I x R. That’s it! “L” represents the raw information of light that is measured by the retina, “I” represents the illumination that is inferred from the context of the scene, and “R” represents the reflectance of the object (that is generally constant).

The reason why we see different colors when viewing the same object is that we naturally “discount the illuminant”, variable “I”. This is because we need to establish lightness constancy, the ability to perceive objects as being the same under different lighting conditions. It is beneficial to have our brains wired in such a way in order to recognize the same object in various situations.

However, there are loopholes in this development and thus visual illusions can occur due to such a rigid percept. In this instance, all of the ellipses are the exact same color, but because we infer their illumination, they appear to be different.

Furthermore, the amount of inference depends on the individual. Let’s take one more look at the dress with a few manipulations. Some people have a more rigid perception than others, but here I am attempting to make you see it in a different light and hence color:

It may or may not have worked, but at the end of the day, as long as you understand why color is purely subjective, I consider that a success. So the next time someone inevitably gets into an argument with someone else about color, you can rest assured that they are both crazy (since it is frivolous).

Disclaimer: I was a graduate student instructor for an upper division perception course.