We Asked An Entire Conference Of Eye Doctors To Explain What's Up With #TheDress


They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but #TheDress has left top experts speechless.

By now, you’ve probably looked at a photo of #TheDress, which has befuddled celebrities, social-media users, doctors and researchers alike. The population is split into two groups: roughly half of us are seeing a black and blue dress, whereas the other half are seeing white and gold.

If you’re not already dress-obsessed, get the entire story, here, or watch this recap, below.

There are a bunch of theories floating around as to why exactly this is happening. Experts only have ideas right now.

So we called an entire conference.

Julia Haller, MD, Ophthalmologist in Chief at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, is attending The Macula Society meeting with vision experts and researchers from all over the world.

In an example of brilliant timing, they were all laughing and buzzing about #TheDress, Haller tells us. “None of us have ever heard of this great an individual difference,”she tells us.

But theyve got theories, boiling down to two primary mechanisms:

1. The Dress is Messing With Our Rods and Cones

“There are two parts of seeing,”Haller says. “The first is that light focuses on the retina, and the nerve tissues pick up images; rods help us see in the night, whereas cones help us see in the daytime. There are slight differences at the level of the cones in how we each see color. One way this might be happening is that, in that variability at the level of the cones, by random chance, this image is magnifying that, like, 0.1 percent individual difference we all have.”

2. The Dress Is Messing With Our Brains Ability To Contextually Process An Image

The second part to seeing, and the second way this stark difference might be happening, is when information from the retina is sent along the optic nerve to the brain. “What happens in the brain is contextual processing; this is why colors look different at different times of day,”Haller says. “There are differences in ambient light and interpretation, and the brain will weed out things like reflectants and changing bits of data. For some reason, this particular photo and the lighting is throwing off that normal process, and magnifying the difference.”

To summarize the complex scientific explanation: 

This image is clearly hitting a “sweet spot” in variability, where we interpret things slightly different from person to person, either in the brain or in the eye.

“What’s also crucial here is that any type of perception is subjective,”Haller says. “People aren’t seeing the exact same thing all the time — just like wines will taste slightly different to everyone, and people taste different notes, and perfumes smell different to everyone, someone will love it whereas someone else will think it smells terrible. With color, though, we don’t have the same variability in how we describe things.”

Lisa Lystad, MD, a neuro-opthalmologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Cole Eye Institute, echoes some of Haller’s sentiments. “Part of it may be cultural. Some cultures have many more ways of describing color than we do,” she says. “It’s sort of like if you go to the Arctic circle and talk about snow. They have tons of different kinds of ‘snow.’”

In terms of the nitty gritty of visual and neurological functioning here, that’s tougher to figure out with #TheDress. “I think that we don’t understand completely how we process color,”she tells Yahoo Health. “It’s a combination of eye and brain mechanics, and the amount of light we’re seeing. Color is all relative and contextual. And if you have an aqua color, for example, some would call is blue and others would call it green.”

Related: Is This Dress Blue And Black Or White And Gold? 

She also thinks there might be something significant about the combination of lighting and the multi-color nature of the dress. “Colors are processed relative to what colors are next to it,” Lystad says. “The dress is also not uniform in color — the shading and the coloring is different everywhere in this photo. Blacks and whites are combinations of colors. You’re firing all cones in the eye to see the color black, and all cones to get the color white.”

In essence, again along the lines of individual differences, Lystad says that the brain might be reading those multi-color, black-and-white signals differently from person to person, since all color cones are firing at once. “Fabric is also really interesting,”she says. “It’s generally not uniform. There are slight variations in colors and threads.”

Which, again, may cause our brains to interpret different general colors from person to person. Experiencing an information overload yet?

Ultimately, Lystad thinks this phenomenon is awesome, though — whatever the explanation. “What is great about #TheDress is the extremes,”she says. “It’s actually one of the most fun color issues I’ve seen in a really long time.”She’s played with lighting and monitor illumination, and found the color does change shades the more she makes adjustments.

One of our editors initially saw the dress as white and gold, but had it flip on her to blue and black — and now she can’t go back. We asked Lystad if she knows what the deal is there.

“Oh, that’s fabulous,”she says, laughing.

Let the debate rage on.

Up Next: What #TheDress Color You See Says About You — According To Science