#TheDress Explained

You know about "The Dress"? It first appeared on Tumblr? The one that's freaking out the Internet? Or at least, making it lose its composure? And Twitter's, well, all a-twitter about it, too? Yeah, that one. Here's the deal: some people look at the photo and see a black-and-blue dress. But others look at the same photo and see a gold-and-white dress. Wha--? How can that be?

Calm down, Internet. I'm here to explain. I'm a psychologist specializing in perception. I'm trained to handle situations like this.

What we "see" is affected not just by the pattern of light that falls on our retinas, but also by unconscious assumptions that we make about the visible world. Like, for example, the ambient illumination.

Say you "see" a piece of red paper. Is it red paper under white light? Or is it white paper under red light? If you don't know for sure about the light falling on the paper, your assumption about the illumination makes all the difference. Your unconscious assumption makes you see the object one way, or another. Same goes for the dress. (What if it's red paper under red light? Shut up. I'm trying to make a point here.)

Usually, our assumptions about things match the reality. We know what the ambient illumination is. It's obvious. But what if reality is ambiguous? That is, what if we don't know for sure what the ambient lighting actually is? Like, say, in a poorly exposed photo? Can we force our perception to change?

Let's try. Want to see the dress as gold and white? Try scrolling the photo so all you see is the topmost part--just to where the frilly ruffly bits start. Then tell yourself that the black neckline under bright illumination is actually a gold colour under low illumination. Also, think about the lighter areas as actually being white, again under low illumination. (Likewise, if all you see is a gold-and-white dress, imagine that you're looking at the dress under much brighter illumination.) You're using "top-down" perception, driven by your beliefs about the stimulus, not just about the "bottom-up" incoming signals from your eyes.

Still not working for you? Wait until it's dark outside, or go into a completely dark room. Download an image of the dress from the original Tumblr page. Pull it up in a graphics viewer. (I like FastStone.) View it full screen, with nothing else around it, just a black background. Now decrease the brightness of your computer screen, and turn off the lights in your room. At the lowest screen brightness, try again to convince yourself that you're looking at a white-and-gold dress. There's no guarantee this will work. I mean, maybe you're brain damaged, I dunno. It's late and I'm tired, and I want students from my classes to stop sending me emails about this dress. It's pretty ugly. (Sorry.)

There ya go, mystery solved. It's all about your unconscious assumptions. As to why some people can more easily see it as gold and white, whereas others cannot, well, that's an interesting question!
(By the way, the dress is actually blue and black, according to Amazon. That's the objective reality. So stop arguing.)

Why aren't you studying?

The Reading Week Reading List

Happy Reading Week! I don't have as much time as I'd like to read. Sure, there's all the stuff that I have to read (new textbooks, scientific papers and whatnot). There's also what I feel obligated to read: the newspaper (I've read the newspaper every single day since I was in grade 1. Not that I was reading about global socioeconomic events back then; just the comics. I was amazed to find comics in the newspaper. Now I do read about global socioeconomic events...and then read the comics to cheer up again.). Then there are the magazines I subscribe to. I have to read those; I'm paying for them. (For the record, these include Wired and Consumer Reports.)

And then there are the books I read for fun. Listening to audiobooks counts as "reading," right? I'm going to say it does. I "read" a lot during my commute: it makes the time pass by faster, and it's better than eyeball reading a book while driving. A lot of books I read are nonfiction, science-based and usually about psychology, but I enjoy other topics, too. Like economics. (What? What's wrong with economics? It can be fun. Well, maybe not macroeconomics.) I do read fiction, too, but not as much as I'd like. Anyway, here's a sample of some books I've read, or am reading.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
This one's right up my alley: A book for middle-aged white guys, full of references to D&D, classic video games, and '80s music. Apparently, other people enjoy it, too. The story itself is structured like a video game, making you wonder whether the protagonist will complete the final level and defeat the boss. Not only was the book filled with all kinds of coolness, Cline also wrote a working Atari 2600 game, The Stacks. This game was part of an online scavenger hunt; the winner was given a DMC DeLorean by Cline. This book is going to be made into a movie. Read the book, cuz we all know the movie is never as good. Atari 2600, eh? That brings me to...

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort & Ian Bogost
Ah, more geekery. This book is about the inner workings of the Atari VCS, a.k.a. the 2600, the game console of my youth. It starts by explaining the technical workings of the system, like the horizontal blank and the vertical blank. And then it gets really interesting. No, really. It explains the development of six classic cartridges including Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, and Pitfall! Even if you're not into the technical side of games, if you've ever played these games online, it's interesting to read about the stories behind the games. For example, I learned that Yar's Revenge started off as a port of the arcade game Star Castle. Neato!

Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat by John McQuaid
Although it sounds like this is a "food" book (another one of my favourite topics!), it's really about the sense of taste. You gotta love a book that starts off with a discussion of Edwin Boring's mistaken tongue map. Other chapters cover the quest to grow the world's hottest chili pepper: for the record (literally), the Carolina Reaper, and the effects of the miracle fruit. Although it seems like it's all about taste (per se), there's also quite a bit about flavour. What's the diff? You could just look it up on Wikipedia. Or you could take my PSYCO 367: Perception class. I'll be sure to add some interesting things from this book.
What are you reading?

Why aren't you studying?

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