A Neuroscientist Weighs In: Why Do We Disagree On The Color Of The Dress? Robert Siegel speaks with Dr. Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist at Wellesley College, about the dress that has the whole Internet asking: What color is it?
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A Neuroscientist Weighs In: Why Do We Disagree On The Color Of The Dress?

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A Neuroscientist Weighs In: Why Do We Disagree On The Color Of The Dress?

A Neuroscientist Weighs In: Why Do We Disagree On The Color Of The Dress?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Let's get to the dress that's led to deep disagreements around the globe. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating. I've been hearing it all day in the newsroom, too.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's white and gold.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: White and gold.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It's definitely...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's white and gold

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: ...It's black and blue.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's black and blue

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: It's obviously blue and black.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's white and gold.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I don't know why there's a discussion.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's not even a question, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It's black and blue.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The real dress is black and blue.

SIEGEL: For the record, I see white and gold. A woman posted a photo of a dress, the dress in question, on Tumblr. This was on Tuesday and she wanted help because she and her friends saw the colors of the dress differently. By last night, the dress was an Internet phenomenon, pitting friend against friend, colleague against colleague, family member against family member. Why is it that people see the colors of the dress so differently? Now, we assume many of you have seen this thing, but just in case, it's on our Facebook page - NPR ATC. And here to settle this debate once and for all, we hope, is Dr. Bevil Conway, professor of neuroscience at Wellesley College. Thanks for joining us.

BEVIL CONWAY: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: So you've seen the picture of the dress. Is it white gold, as I see it, or black and blue, as others do?

CONWAY: Well, I represent the third camp. I see it as orange and blue, which I think is probably the most accurate in terms of the representation in the digital image. If you look at the colors of each pixel, they actually report as orange and blue.

SIEGEL: Did you zoom way, way in on this to arrive at that conclusion?

CONWAY: I - no. When I was contacted initially about this, someone showed me the dress and said, what color is it? And I said it's orange and blue. And then we did the diagnostics on the image to figure it out. But, of course, that explain why so many people see it in so many different ways.

SIEGEL: Yes. Why is it that one image can be seen so differently? I think we all know the names of the colors here. This is a matter of colorblindness, is it? We just see it differently.

CONWAY: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. So it's got very little to do, if anything, with what's happening in the eye itself. It's got to do with how the brain that sits behind the eye is interpreting the signals that hit the retina. And there are, you know, many, many neurons - billions of neurons that are trying to interpret what hits the retina. And that interpretation is required because the stimulus that hits the retina is inherently ambiguous. It could be lots of different things. And because of people's particular prejudices about what they think they may see and because of the peculiar color combination, which is orange and blue, which sits on what we call the daylight axis. It's the colors of the naturally occurring luminance. It sets the stage for a very ambiguous situation that some people are going to interpret in one way and other people are going to interpret, equally validly actually, in another way.

SIEGEL: Still, let the record show, orange is - I understand you see it that way, but that one's off the charts here for us. But...

CONWAY: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: ...Would we all see the same colors if we saw the dress in person?

CONWAY: So if you saw the dress in person, then you would have a lot more information. You could move around the dress. You would get much more information about how the lighting interacted not only with the dress, but with other objects in the environment. And I've been told the designer says it's blue and black.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) I see. But that - for that, you went to the primary source to find that out.

CONWAY: Right, right, yes. For me, though, I think that what's really important about this particular image and the controversy that's erupted is what it tells us about how important color is for us. We really care about color much more so, I think, than anybody actually anticipated. It's kind of like an identity. We identify with the colors we see, and when someone challenges us on those colors, then, you know, we feel it's like a violation of our core identity.

SIEGEL: I think I'm on the concluding thought. I still want to say, funny, it doesn't look bluish.

CONWAY: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: Dr. Conway, thank you very much for talking with us about this.

CONWAY: My absolute pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Dr. Bevil Conway, a professor of neuroscience at Wellesley College, confirming that the dress that sparked international debate is, in fact, blue and black.

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