06 July 2020

Does Everyone “See” Color the Same Way?

ost people assume that we all see colors the same way, but is this actually true?

Remember #TheDress? In 2015, an image circulated on social media asking people to weigh in: Was the dress #blueandblack, or #whiteandgold? After starting on Facebook, more than 10 million tweets poured in with strong opinions about the colors, making it one of the most successful viral memes of all time.

the dress, Does Everyone “See” Color the Same Way?

Source: Photo of the confusing dress, Original photo posted on swiked.tumblr.com

For neuroscientists, this viral internet event provided the opportunity to rethink our entire understanding of color vision – on a large scale and not through a traditional experiment in a laboratory. The photo was successful as a meme precisely because we tend to believe that colors are a fundamental and universal part of our visual environment. It was thus shocking for people to discover that other observers might see completely different colors in the very same photograph. For scientists, it offered the opportunity to understand visual ambiguities and how observers could see colors in such fundamentally different and apparently irreconcilable ways.

The consensus now is that lighting conditions played a major role in people’s perception of the image, which was taken on a mobile phone and uploaded as a largely washed-out photograph. As it turns out, our brains like to take shortcuts in order to be efficient, and they often fill in missing information with assumptions based on past experience. Was the image taken outside or inside? Was it back lit and contained shadows, or was it illuminated from the front? Scientists concluded that the implicit assumptions about lighting made by individual observers of the dress made all the difference. At the same time, observers were not themselves aware of the extent to which their judgments depend on assumptions about illumination, so they were utterly surprised to find themselves in disagreement with others.

#TheDress, then, is a great example of the power of unconscious assumptions and beliefs in perception. Photographers, artists, and designers often utilize these shortcuts that our brains make in order to maximize the effects of color and light. Harnessing the ambiguities of perception is a central feature of creative design. Here at Hirzou.com, we will happily customize your projects, based on the desired affects you wish to achieve.

(By the way, the dress was blue and black.)