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The dress of many colours: is it blue and black or white and gold?

A recent debate on the colour of a dress has broken the internet. But is it all just a visual illusion? 

The infamous dress, in all its variety. Photo: swiked/Tumblr

The internet went Armageddon last night over the colour of an (let’s face it) ugly dress which Tumblr user swiked uploaded. The disagreement in colours divided the social media world: is it blue and black or white and gold or something in between?

Photo: swiked/Tumblr

(By the way, it’s clearly blue and black.)

When things start to question our existence we turn to science to tell us things are going to be ok. Let’s turn to how our brains translate colour through our retinas:

Visible light can be broken down into various wavelengths which correspond to different perceivable colours. This all depends on what colour(s) the object is reflecting. This reflective light enters through the eye lens and hits a light sensitive layer of tissue called retina in the back of the eye where a cascade of neural messages are sent to the visual cortex – the part of the brain that processes visual information. However, the quality of light that penetrates into our retina plays a big part.

Luminance is the intensity of light emitted from a surface per unit area of light travelling in a given direction. So the brain has to work out how much of the luminance (or lack thereof) is caused by the colour of the square and how much is caused by the shadows. “In the case of the dress, some people are deciding that there is a fair amount of illumination on a blue and black (or less reflective) dress. Other people are deciding that it is less illumination on a white and gold dress (it is in shadow, but more reflective),” said Cedar Riener, an associate professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College in a BuzzFeed interview.

An example is the famous Adelson checkerboard optical illusion, in which square A and square B are same shade of grey: 

 

 

So why do different people’s brains interpret light differently? Humans have evolved to see in the daylight. Typical daylight extends from blue-white at noon to pinkish-red at dawn. Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies colour at vision at Wellesley College told Wired: “What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis. So 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.”

Conway also suggests that the white-gold or blue-black bias could be linked to whether we prefer daylight or night time. So those who perceive the dress as white-gold might be interpreting it as though it's in blue natural lighting, and those who perceive it as blue-black might be interpreting it as though it's in yellow artificial lighting. “I bet night owls are more likely to see it as blue-black,” Conway says.

Based on correct white-balancing, we can confirm that the dress is blue and black (sorry white and gold die-hards), but ultimately, visual perception is in the eye of the brain holder.

Luckily for the New Statesman, Ed Miliband established Labour's position on the blue-black and white-gold spectrum: 

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.