Neuroscientists are Still Confused About #TheDress

By Sarah Zhang on at

The dress is back — this time with peer-reviewed science. Months after the blue-and-black (OR IS IT white-and-gold?) dress provoked a bajillion arguments, scientists come armed with new studies. But they still can’t solve the fundamental mystery behind the dress.

That would not be the dress’s real color. (Internet sleuths were on that from day 1.) It’s actually a more basic question about how the brain works: what is different about those of us who see blue/black and those who see white/gold? And what’s going on in our brains when the colours suddenly switch?

Plenty of explainers from the heat of the viral moment gamely explained how colour perception is relative, but they could not explain why we swung one way or the other when it came to the dress. This week, Current Biology published a trio of new studies about the dress, and you know what? This viral dress is still defying scientific explanation.

One study found that the colour blue provokes special ambiguity. Another asked participants to match the colour of the dress perceived to colours in a colour wheel, which matched up to colours common in daylight. And a third surveyed 1,400 participants to see which camp they fell in. Together, they sort of just admit, yup, the dress is weird.

In the study surveying 1,400 participants, the neuroscientists did try to speculate about the differences between blue/black evangelists versus their white/gold counterparts. Did age play a role? Older people saw more white/gold. What about culture? Unclear. Sex? Women saw more white/gold, too. Why? We don’t know.

One theory, though, is illumination-discounting, which is a fancy way of saying that whether we spend more time in (bluish) sunlight or (orange-ish indoor lighting) affects how we see the colour of the dress. The authors write:

If the illumination-discounting theory is correct, and different people have different priors on the illumination determined by their exposure, we would predict that “larks” (daytime chrontotype) will show a bias for [white/gold] (discounting the blue in the dress); and “night owls” (night-time chronotype) will show a bias for [blue/black] (discounting the orange in the dress).

But when they asked about participant’s sleep habits, the data was inconclusive. Long-term data about sleep habits might help answer the question.

If anything, the dress has exposed just how little neuroscientists understand about the brain. As a result, we now have scientific papers linking to Tumblr, and a silly meme has provoked new questions in neuroscience and psychology.