What your brain really sees when it looks at ‘the dress’: A neuroscientist explains

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It’s the question on everyone’s lips – just what color is that dress? White and gold or blue and black? Well, we know what Kim Kardashian thinks. Now it’s science’s turn to enter the Internet battle raging over the actual color of a 21-year old Scottish woman’s dress.

So, why do people see different colors in the dress?

Bevil Conway, associate professor of neuroscience at Wellesley College, told FoxNews.com that the dress plays on core aspects of brain science.

“This dress was very carefully crafted, either by accident or design, for a combination of colors that doesn’t resolve unambiguously,” he said.

Our brains and visual systems don’t want to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty in what they are seeing, according to Conway, so our brains do backflips to “make it sensible.”

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    The professor explained that our brains have evolved to discount certain lighting conditions which we see all the time, which may explain the wild variations in how people see the dress.

    “Some people are getting rid of the orange side of the daylight axis, they see the dress as blue and black,” he explained. “Some people are getting rid of the blue side, and they see the dress as gold and white.”

    For the record, Conway sees the dress as orange and blue.

    Wired provided some more context on the science behind the dress debate, noting that light enters the eye through the lens, with different wavelengths corresponding to different colors. The light hits the retina in the back of the eye where pigments fire up neural connections to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes those signals into an image. The brain then figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at.

    The dress, however, hits some sort of “perceptual boundary,” according to Wired, prompting confusion about its illuminating and reflecting colors.

    “Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance,” Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, told Wired. “But I’ve studied individual differences in color vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I’ve ever seen.”

    Neitz sees the dress as white and gold.

    New Scientist also highlights the importance of light in interpreting the dress’s colors, noting that our brains unconsciously correct for what we think the light source is. Erin Goddard, a cognitive scientist at Macquarie University in Australia, told New Scientist that there are not many cues in the picture to help you interpret the light source, adding to its ambiguity. You can't even tell if it's in shadow or not, which could make all the difference, she explained.

    While scientists are now attempting to, ahem, 'shed light' on this dress brouhaha, a fierce social media battle continues to rage, with #TheDress trending worldwide on Twitter early Friday.

    The bizarre debate kicked off on Wednesday, when Tumblr user "swiked" posted this photo with the simple question, "Guys please help me - is this dress white and gold, or blue and black?" When pressed for details, the user, who identified herself to Business Insider as 21-year-old Caitlin McNeill from the Scottish Hebredian island of Colonsay, said, "It was the mother of the brides [sic] dress at my friend's wedding! She posted it on Facebook and everyone started freaking out."

    Cue a host of celebrities, from Taylor Swift to Mia Farrow, weighing in on its color.

    For the record, I see the dress as white and blue.

    Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers