CLPS professors explain The Dress

By now, you definitely have an opinion on the dress that broke the internet last night. Not only did the original post generate millions of views on Buzzfeed, but also thousands of articles have been written as follow ups. So here’s another.


In the wake of the upset last night, I emailed three CLPS professors about their take on the dress. I wasn’t alone. Professor David Badre, studying neural systems and cognitive control in his lab here at Brown, said he received several emails from concerned students. So many, in fact, that he taught the explanation for why the phenomena was occurring in his Intro to Cognitive Neuroscience class this afternoon. In layman’s terms, he explained it as an issue that occurs when the same wavelength of light is perceived differently because of its context. When you look at the photo, your brain assumes there is an overarching tint to the picture; that the entire image is tinted too blue or too yellow. So, your brain tries to correct for this by limiting your perception of those colors. As Badre put it, “[your brain] subtracts the overlaid color.” Where are these colors coming from? Visual scientists suspect there is a blue light shining down above the dress and a yellow light from the back.

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Figures from Prof. Badre’s lecture illuminate the illusion


Badre calls this kind of illusion “cognitively impenetrable.” Even when you are made aware it’s an illusion, you cannot change your perception. What makes this study fascinating, and what no one has been able to determine for certain, is why there are individual differences in people’s perception. Going forward, we can expect a great deal of attention in research as to why you see black and blue yet your roommate sees yellow and gold. To read more on the cognitive explanation, both visual perception specialist, Professor Leslie Welch, and Professor Badre recommend this article.

That’s not the only psychological marvel spawned by the dress, however. The other serious quandary is why people care so much.  Specifically, why they care so much about being right. Professor Joachim Krueger, studying social cognition and self perception in his lab, says people are getting so worked up thanks to “naive realism.” Naive realism is a philosophy of mind that argues we must believe our senses because our sense provide us with a direct and accurate depiction of the world. We’ve also only ever learned to trust our senses. Krueger postulates this is for two main reasons. Firstly, our senses are immediate and if we didn’t trust them, we would constantly be living in unproductive doubt. Secondly, the vast majority of the time, people have a common understanding and sharing of sensory information. We have all agreed that blue is blue and gold is gold. This validates our perceptions which is why we get immensely skeptical when they are called into question.

As for why we get hostile? Krueger points to the literature in egocentrism. We, as humans, are constantly self-enhancing. The vast majority of people believe their thoughts are more accurate than an average persons. This has been tested in so many facets, under so many conditions, and the result is always the same: we think we’re better than we probably are.  Because of this, we trust our own internal intuitions with the highest regard. And when it comes to your roommates opinion? That external information simply cannot be valid.

Image via Jason Hu ’16. 

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