August 2016
Volume 16, Issue 12
Open Access
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2016
Mechanisms of color perception and cognition covered by #thedress
Author Affiliations
  • Bevil Conway
    Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, Cambridge MA, USA
  • Rosa Lafer-Sousa
    Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, Cambridge MA, USA
  • Katherine Hermann
    Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, Cambridge MA, USA
Journal of Vision September 2016, Vol.16, 746. doi:10.1167/16.12.746
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      Bevil Conway, Rosa Lafer-Sousa, Katherine Hermann; Mechanisms of color perception and cognition covered by #thedress. Journal of Vision 2016;16(12):746. doi: 10.1167/16.12.746.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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Color is notoriously ambiguousmany color illusions existbut until now it has been thought that all people with normal color vision experience color illusions the same way. How does the visual system resolve color ambiguity? Here, we present work that addresses this question by quantifying peoples perception of a particularly ambiguous image, the dress photograph. The colors of the individual pixels in the photograph when viewed in isolation are light-blue or brown, but popular accounts suggest the dress appears either white/gold or blue/black. We tested more than 1400 people, both on-line and under controlled laboratory conditions. Subjects first completed the sentence: this is a ___and___dress. Then they performed a color-matching experiment that did not depend on language. Surprisingly, the results uncovered three groups of subjects: white/gold observers, blue/black observers and blue/brown observers. Our findings show that the brain resolves ambiguity in the dress into one of three stable states; a minority of people switched which colors they saw (~11%). It is clear that what we see depends on both retinal stimulation and internal knowledge about the world. Cases of multi-stability such as the dress provide a rare opportunity to investigate this interplay. In particular, we go on to demonstrate that the dress photograph can be used as a tool to discover that skin reflectance is a particularly important implicit cue used by the brain to estimate the color of the light source, to resolve color ambiguity, shedding light on the role of high-level cues in color perception.

Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2016


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