The white and gold dress, and the illusion of free will

At first I didn’t really understand what was all the fuzz about, the dress was obviously white and gold, and everybody that saw it any other way was wrong, end of story. However I saw an article in IFLScience that explained why this might be an optical illusion, but I still thought I was seeing it right, the other people were the ones getting it wrong. Then I saw the original dress:

Original dress

#TheDress

Well, maybe it was a different version of the dress, or maybe the colors were washed away, or maybe it was a weird camera filter, or a bug in the lens. Sure, everything is possible, but maybe, I was just seeing it wrong.

I’ve read and heard a lot about cognitive science and the more we learn about the brain, the more faults we find in it. We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as it is useful for us to see the world. In fact, we cannot see the world as it is, in atoms and quarks, we cannot, because we don’t even fully understand it yet. We see the world in ways that managed to get us where we are, we sometimes get an irrational fear of the dark and run quickly up the stairs in our safe home even if we know there can’t possibly be any tigers chasing behind us, but in the past it was better to be safe than sorry, and the ones that didn’t have that fear gene are not with us any more; they got a Darwin award.

I know what some people might be thinking; my brain is not faulty! I see the world as it truly is! Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but you don’t. Optical illusions are a perfect example, and here is one:

Optical illusion

If you are human, you will see the orange spot at the top darker than the one at the bottom, why? Because your brain assumes the one at the bottom is a shadow, and therefore it should be darker. However, they are exactly the same color (#d18600 in hex notation), remove the context, and you’ll see that, put the context back, and you can’t see them the same, you just can’t, and we all humans have the same “fault”.

This phenomenon can be explained by the theory of color constancy, and these faults are not limited to our eyes, but ears, and even rational thinking.

So, could the white and gold vs. blue and black debate be an example of this? The argument is that the people that see the dress as white and gold perceive it to be in a shadow behind a brightly lit part of a room, the people that see it as blue and black see it washed in bright light. Some people say they can see as both; some times white, some times blue.

XKCD

I really did try not to see it in a shadow, but I just couldn’t, even after I watched modified photos; I just saw a white and gold dress with a lot of contrast. I decided they were all wrong, no amount of lighting would turn a royal blue dress into white.

But then I fired GIMP (the open version of Photoshop), and played around with filters. Eventually I found what did the trick for me, and here you can see the progress:

So eventually I managed to see it, does that mean I was wrong? Well, yes, my brain saw something that wasn’t there, however, it happened for a reason, if the context was different, what my brain saw would have been correct. Perhaps in a parallel universe there’s a photo that looks exactly the same, but the dress was actually white and gold.

At the end of the day our eyes are the windows through which we see reality, and they are imperfect, just like our brains. We can be one hundred percent sure that what we are seeing is actually there, that what we remember is what happened, and that we are being rational in a discussion. Sadly one can be one hundred percent sure of something, and still be wrong.

To me the most perfect example is the illusion that we are in control of our lives. The more science finds out about the brain, the more we realize how little we know of what actually happens in the 1.5 kg meatloaf between our ears. You are not in control of your next thought any more than you are of my next thought, and when people try to explain their decisions, their reasons are usually wrong. Minds can be easily manipulated, and we rarely realize it.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the Internet about the subconscious and how the brain really works (as far as we know). Here’s is one talk that I particularly find interesting.

So, if you want to believe you are the master of your own will, go ahead, you can also believe the dress was white and gold. Those are illusions, regardless of how useful they might be. Reality, however, is different.

3 thoughts on “The white and gold dress, and the illusion of free will

  1. Back in the Bauhaus days in Germany, a cool guy named Johannes Itten was playing around with all of this stuff and really pushing the envelope of our understanding of color. For his treatise on color, see The Elements of Color, ISBN 0-442-24038-4. Really great stuff.

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