Study Claims To Know What Was Going On With That Stupid Dress

Years after the viral sensation, they polled 13,000 people to find out

Apr 07, 2017 at 1:09 PM ET

Back in February 2015, in what now feels like infinitely simpler times, the entire internet tore itself apart over what the color was of this one dress worn at a Scottish wedding.

At one point, people were tweeting more than 10,000 times a minute, drawing battle lines over whether the dress was blue and black or white and gold. Since then, several studies have attempted to explain just why the world briefly went mad over a photograph of a dress, but a newly published effort may represent the most gloriously comprehensive explanation as to just was going on. If it’s right, what time you wake up and go to bed could have been the major influence on how you see the dress.

Writing in the Journal of Vision, New York University neuroscientist Pascal Wallisch explains the photograph was overexposed, meaning people couldn’t tell whether the photo was taken in shadow or in artificial light. If a person’s brain believes it’s the former, then they will subconsciously remove the darker blue light of shadows in order to see the dress’s true color — in that case, white and gold. But if a person thinks the dress was photographed in artificial light, mentally removing that light’s bright yellows will leave the dress looking blue and black.

Our brains constantly color-correct for illumination sources in this way, but the dress proved the perfect ambiguous case for two factions to develop. Wallisch was able to demonstrate this effect in a 13,000-person online study, in which participants — all of whom had already seen the dress, of course — were asked whether they thought the dress was in shadow. About 80 percent of those who said it was did indeed see the dress as white and gold, while only about half of those who didn’t think it was in shadow said those were the dress’s colors. It’s not a perfect overlap between perception of light source and perception of color, but there does appear to be an actual effect at work here.

But Wallisch’s paper takes this one step further by attempting to explain what about a person makes their brain reach one of the two conclusions. His hypothesis is that people who wake up and go to bed early and thus spend most of their lives in sunlight are likelier to see the dress in shadow, whereas night owls are more likely to think the dress is pictured in artificial light. Again, there did seem to be some relationship here, with early risers being significantly more likely to see the dress as a shadow-corrected white and gold, while night owls were more likely to see it as blue and black. If you want to use this information to wildly speculate about the sleeping habits of famous people who weighed in on the color of the dress back in 2015, there’s nothing we can do to stop you.

So will this resolve the mystery of the dress, long after it initially went viral? Surely not, especially when there are rival studies like this and this and this and this out there. It’s only appropriate that an ambiguous, unresolvable mystery like the dress should have no single scientific explanation.