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Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Brains, Perception and the Dress that Ate the Internet

When a picture of an everyday dress worn by the mother of a bride brings the Internet to its knees, something interesting is going on. To understand what means rethinking the very nature of the perceptual worlds we inhabit.


“Is this dress white and gold or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking the f…”  Well, they were freaking out.

So went the text of the February 2015 Tumblr post containing the image of The Dress that within about two hours showed up on the screen of pretty much every computer, phone and tablet on the planet. It’s kind of amazing for something as seemingly obscure as a picture of a dress from a wedding reception to raise “viral” to a whole new level. Equally remarkable is the passionate, almost violent insistence of many that they are right and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong.

Some see this dress as white and gold. Others see it as blue and black. All are looking at the same dress. What's up?

Some see this dress as white and gold. Others see it as blue and black. All are looking at the same dress. What’s up?

The next World War will see armies march against each other under banners of white and gold,and blue and black.  Or rather, as the case may be, one banner that is both. Something pretty profound is clearly going on here.

By the evening of the first day, the Internet was already awash in posts talking about things like color theory and the way brains correct for lighting. I have some experience with that. I’m responsible for arguably the most famous picture ever taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, and over the years since I’ve had more conversations than I care to count that started with, “Is that true color?”

But the real reason The Dress provokes such strong emotions goes far deeper. The Dress slaps us in the face, forcing us to confront the disconcerting fact that the foundation of our conscious existence – the world of our perceptions – is different for different people.

We Interact With a World of Constructed Perceptions

If I point to an apple and say, “that is red,” you might say, “OK… I will call the color of that apple red.” Then if I point to a rose and say, “that is red, too,” chances are you’ll agree, and together we build agreement about what things we will call red.  From there we sort of fall into imagining that the perception of “red” inside of my head and the perception of “red” inside of your head are the same things.

But then along comes The Dress, and that comfortable notion that I perceive the world in the same way you perceive the world crumbles. White and gold is just not the same thing as blue and black. White and gold is nothing like blue and black! And yet…

When 70,000 people gather to watch a sporting event, they are all in the same physical arena. But in another sense, they are in 70,000 different arenas. The arena that each person perceives is an arena that their brain has constructed for them.

Each person’s world of constructed perceptions gives them information about the physical world that we share. Each of those constructed worlds is constantly being revised on the basis of information from our senses, our bodies and our brains. But my world of constructed perceptions is mine and your world of constructed perceptions is yours. The Dress rubs our noses in the fact that those two perceptual worlds can be very different places.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m a physicist. I can assure you that there is a physical world that we share and that is the same for all of us. I am not saying that world doesn’t exist. And I am definitely not saying that “consciousness manifests its own reality,” whatever that means. I have about as much patience for New Age fru fru as your average house cat has for a brisk swim in the North Atlantic. It is extremely charitable to say that the Deepak Chopras of the world are merely misguided.

The objective, physical world in which we live is not a mental construct. But the world of our perceptions is.

“Adaptive” Beats “Correct” Any Day

Our brains became what they are in response to millions of years of evolutionary pressures. Those pressures did not favor those whose perceptions were the most direct or even the most accurate representations of the world. Those pressures favored those whose perceptions best helped them to survive.

The worlds inside our heads are not correct. They are adaptive. They organize and present us with information in ways that are first and foremost useful. The difference between the two is profound.

So what do our brains accomplish by constructing a perceptual world for us instead of just putting us directly in touch with our senses? In part, the constructed world of perceptions is a solution to a problem with the rate at which sensory information becomes available. Using vision as an example, the light-sensitive cells in our eyes produce information at a rate of something like a terabyte (that’s a million megabytes) every two seconds. Imagine what it would be like to have to deal with all of that information consciously.

“Let’s see… the light coming from that direction is sort of tan, and the light from that direction is kind of white, and then there is the light coming from those millions of other directions too…  And just an instant ago they were all so different than they are now…”

In the mean time the lion – with a brain that has constructed a much simpler perceptual model of the world containing things like grass and trees and prey – is about to remove your sorry excuse for a brain from the gene pool.

We are on top of the food chain precisely because our brains do such an extraordinary job constructing sophisticated perceptual worlds that organize sensory and other information in powerful ways.

I’ll See It When I Can Can Construct It

We all know that perceptions differ when our physical senses differ. A blind person’s brain repurposes the processing capability of the visual cortex to construct a rich world of perceptions rooted in sound and touch and smell.  My father was a less extreme example. He did not even recognize that his eyesight was poor until he got to high school and took a vision test. He did not recognize that he was colorblind until he joined the Navy in World War II and discovered that he could not see navy signal flags the way that others did.

But perception draws on more than just our senses. The world that we perceive cannot exist independently of our knowledge and experience. Our brains rely on our knowledge, understanding and memory to construct that world.

Evolution has hard wired a lot of perceptions into the brain of a newborn baby. Visually, from the moment she is born a baby responds to faces. She responds to touch. Her senses of smell and taste allow her to recognize mother’s milk. The list goes on.

She also has perceptions rooted in her experiences in the womb. During the last month of her pregnancy with our second daughter, my wife had a cold and I had problems with allergies. For a time after Susan was born, nothing told her “all is right with the world” more effectively than the sounds of my wife and I coughing and sneezing away!

But a newborn baby’s perceptual world is wildly different from our own. She is awash in visual information, for example, but absent knowledge and experience she has no way to use that information to construct perceptions of a spatial world beyond herself. Even things as simple as chairs and tables – objects that we just take as there – are absent in her world.

If you have ever watched a baby grow into a child and a child grow into an adult – a fascinating process – much of what you are watching is a brain learning to construct a more and more sophisticated perceptual world.

Language Is Constructed Perception

The way we respond to language can tell us a lot about the role of previous experience in shaping our immediate perceptions. Look at the following pattern of light and dark on your screen:

DRESS

If you read the English language, which apparently you do, it is impossible for you to see that pattern of light and dark without perceiving (not interpreting, but perceiving) the word and the meaning it conveys. In fact, if you are like most people it is impossible for you to look at that visual pattern and not hear the word in your mind as well.  Some may even experience the touch of fabric on their skin, or the emotions, smells and tastes linked in their brain to that common article of clothing. Those are all part of perception as well.

Your perception of “DRESS” is rich, indeed. But what do you see or hear or smell – what do you perceive – when you look at these symbolic representations of the same thing?

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Synesthesia: When perception defies convention

In a way, our perception of written language might almost be considered a form of synesthesia. To a student of literature, synesthesia (from the Greek, “perceive together”) is a figure of speech such as “bright melody” in which one way of sensing the world (melody/sound) is conflated with another way of sensing the world (bright/vision).

Synesthesia is Nonstandard Perception

Synesthesia is a remarkable example of altered perception. A synesthete’s brain is wired so that one sense is experienced as others experience a different sense. These are people who might see music as color or experience emotion as sound.

But for something like one out of every 2,000 people or so, synesthesia is not just a literary device. It is a part of the way they directly perceive the world.

Synesthetes are people who hear color or taste sounds. Or they might see touch, or smell temperature. Over 60 different forms of synesthesia have been documented. In each case, information from one sense is incorporated into an individual’s perceptual world in a way typically associated with a different sense. Of course to the synesthete, all of this is perfectly normal. Someone with hearing-smell synesthesia might live their entire life assuming that everyone hears Dark Side of the Moon while intoxicated by the smell of curry.

At first glance the thought of synesthesia might seem a little eerie or just plain wrong. But there is another way to look at it. Most brains (as far as we can tell) employ the same basic conventions when using sensory information to construct a perceptual world. It’s just that the brain of a synesthete does not obey those conventions.

Synesthesia does not mean that a person’s perceptual world is incorrect. It just means that it is different. But then everyone’s perceptual world is different! And sometimes those unconventional senses bring with them remarkable abilities. As an example, for some perfect pitch goes hand in glove with tone-color synesthesia. It has even been suggested that synesthesia can convey advantages in business. Investigating what synesthesia tells us about the perceptual worlds our brains construct can lead us in some surprising directions.

Auras Are As Real As They Need To Be

People have long spoken of seeing colorful auras that allow them to sense other peoples’ character and emotions. Traditionally given spiritual or mystical meaning – and largely dismissed by science – this phenomenon is coming to be understood instead as a manifestation of emotion-color synesthesia.  Humans are remarkably good at reading a plethora of clues in a person’s behavior and appearance and making often-subconscious judgments about that person’s mental state. The aura-seeing synesthete’s brain is taking those inferences and making them readily available to his conscious mind in the form of color.

Are people surrounded by some mystical energy field that only certain others can see? No. Sorry to all of the New Agers out there but… no. Even so, an aura is a very real thing and conveys very real information in the one place that it matters – within the world of constructed perceptions experienced by the emotion-color synesthete. Seeing auras doesn’t mean you are crazy or that you are a psychic. Nor does it mean that you should ignore the information that your brain has gone to all of that trouble to provide you.

Well, we’ve come this far… As long as we are talking about auras, why not take a shot at ghosts, too?

How Sandra Bullock’s Brain Brought George Clooney Back to Life

In the movie Gravity, at a particularly terrifying and stressful moment, Sandra Bullock’s character is visited by a deceased crewmate, played by George Clooney. Clooney calms her, helps her shake a sense of inevitable doom, and sets her back on the path of her ultimate (if highly improbable and physically nonsensical) escape. When the moment has passed she turns… only to find that Clooney is gone.

That scene was a dramatization of “Third Man Syndrome,” a well-documented phenomenon in which a person under duress reports that they were visited by an unseen or perhaps even seen presence. The phenomenon takes its name from Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.  Shackleton reported that as he and two others crossed the mountains of South Georgia in search of help for his stranded crew, that he was joined by a third incorporeal companion that gave him guidance and support. He went as far as saying that without the third man, they might well have perished there on the ice.

Since then, countless explorers and others who survived extreme experiences – from mountaineers to cave divers to astronauts to people trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building – have reported similar incidents. The “visitor” might have calmed or helped solve a problem, or maybe just provided companionship when needed most. Then when the crisis had passed, the visitor was gone.

There is no question but that when it appears, the Third Man is quite real in the perceptions of the person having the experience. But it is not a spirit guide or the ghost of a relative or a guardian angel.

There are various ideas about exactly how the Third Man phenomenon works. But regardless of the details, what is clear is that the brain constructs the Third Man and places it into a person’s perceptual world. Once there, the brain uses the Third Man to make subconscious information and insights available to the conscious mind in a way that is easy to understand and relate to.

Quite often it is that perceptual construct, the Third Man, who saves the day. When you think about it, that’s pretty damned adaptive!

The Dress is the Rule, Not the Exception

Scientists who study perception could and do go on to fill journals with research into the ways the brain constructs perceptions, and how those perceptions inform and sometimes deceive us about the world. The important thing to realize is that, no matter how strange some of these examples may seem they are all telling us about the defining reality of every moment of our waking and dreaming lives.

Same Dress - Different Perception

This is a second picture of the same dress, this time clearly blue and black. For some, this is no surprise. But for me, the first picture is, and likely will forever be, white and gold!

The only world that you will ever know or interact with is a world that only exists within your brain. That world is not a copy of the physical world. It is not even a direct or meticulously accurate representation of the physical world. Instead, it is a world constructed by your brain to make sense of what your senses are telling it, drawing on everything that your brain has at its disposal. The world of your constructed perceptions serves you well. But while you and I both exist in a real physical world shared by all, the world that you consciously inhabit is as unique and ideosyncratic as your conscious self.

That is the lesson of The Dress.


The woman who posted The Dress has since posted a public service announcement, along with a second picture of the same dress, this time sported by the mother of the bride. Alas, I am forced to accept that were she to stand in front of me now I would compliment her on a dress that is quite undeniably blue and black.

But that does not change the fact that in the world of perceptions constructed by my brain for the benefit of my conscious self – the only world that I will ever experience directly – the first picture of The Dress is and likely will forever remain white and gold.

And, yes, that kind of freaks me out, too.

Brains, Perception and the Dress that Ate the Internet  © Dr. Jeff Hester
Content may not be copied to other sites. All Rights Reserved.

Comments (1)

  • Steve Corsi

    |

    Enjoyed your article very much. As an amateur astronomer and engineer by trade, I think our culture has lost those kinds of people that can synthesize the world from information from many sources. I appreciate that in you and enjoy your articles.

Comments are closed

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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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