The Science of Color Perception: How Our Brains Lie to Us

American physicist Lisa Randall once said “it’s hubris to think that the way we see things is everything there is,” but it’s sometimes not just pride that can cause our perceptions to differ from reality. CDS Clinical Faculty Pascal Wallisch recently appeared in Wired magazine regarding his research on color perception. Specifically, this project centers on the Dress, a meme that went viral in 2015 due to contentious disagreements about the garment’s color.

“The world, as you experience it, is a simulation running inside your skull, a waking dream,” explains Pascal. “We each live in a virtual landscape of perpetual imagination and self-generated illusion, a hallucination informed over our lifetimes by our senses and thoughts about them.” This is how Pascal explains the source of the meme’s controversy. Was it black and blue? Or was it white and gold? Some saw the former, others the latter — and so the arguments ensued.

What Pascal’s research suggests is that the color perceived by each brain differed depending on how each person viewed the image’s lighting conditions. Essentially, different brains made different assumptions, separating people into two groups with conflicting perceptions. The research found that individuals who worked indoors or at night were more likely to say that the Dress was black and blue. Since indoor light tends to be artificial and typically yellow, their brains removed the yellow unconsciously, thus seeing darker bluish shades. However, those who had more exposure to natural light, which contains more power at shorter wavelengths — typically people who work during the day, outside, or near windows — were more likely to remove the blue from the image and see the Dress as white and gold. Brains remove illumination from images routinely, in order to achieve “color constancy”, so that an object looks the same under different lighting conditions.

However, as the lighting was ill-defined in this situation, people’s perceptions were dependent upon their prior experience with light — this determined what illumination a participant assumed, which was then removed by color constancy. As all of this is happening unconsciously, the outcome was simply believed at face value by the observer. Pascal’s lab has coined a term for this phenomenon: SURFPAD. The acronym stands for Substantial Uncertainty with Ramified or Forked Priors or Assumptions yields Disagreement. The key takeaway is that when the truth is not clear, our brains unconsciously produce the most likely scenario it can visualize based on previous experience.

“As we live in increasingly polarized and divergent experiential worlds, we would predict a rise in sincere disagreement. It might be a good idea to resolve these disagreements by creating a discourse culture that traces them to the differential assumptions that result from the different experience, instead of focusing on the disagreement itself,” says Pascal.

We recently featured one of Pascal’s similar projects “Crocs & socks” on the blog. For more information on his research, please visit the Fox Lab NYU website.

By Ashley C. McDonald


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