Our Lying Eyes?

If you’re no stranger to viral internet media, you’re probably aware of this image that has been floating around the last couple of days:

A majority of people seem to think that what they are seeing is a white and gold dress; while others argue that the dress is blue and black.  Over at WIRED, they’ve got a pretty good explanation for what’s going on here.  Neuroscientist Jay Neitz says this image presents a sort of “perceptual boundary” in which your brain must make a decision as to what it sees depending on what light is shining on it.  If your brain thinks it is midday light, it will ignore the bluish hues associated with that time of day, and what you will see is a white and gold dress.  If your brain thinks it is twilight, it will ignore the reddish hues, leaving black and blue.  It makes sense that the majority of people see the white and gold dress considering humans are a diurnal species.

So what about the black and blue people?  Are we (I say “we” because I’m in that camp) not properly adapted for diurnal life?  Does that make us nocturnal?  Are we ill-equipped to live in a diurnal society?  The answers are probably “no” for all of those, but this dress does bring up an interesting point about trusting our perceptions.  Say that we had a whole array of these perceptual divergences, we gave them to participants, and we had them fill out surveys as to what they saw.  How reliable would that data be?

The great argument over the dress can be settled in one way by using imaging software.  We can import the image into the software and scan all the regions for their red, green, and blue values. That would be getting right to the source, but it wouldn’t tell us anything interesting about the person viewing it.  What fun would this exercise be otherwise?  Maybe we could somehow hijack the optic nerve before it gets to the visual vortex and interpret it “unfiltered” before it goes through all the processes it takes to become conscious thought.  In this case, this approach is incredibly invasive, but the concept works.

Here at HCD Research, we study things like heart rate and skin conductance to monitor the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  We employ eye tracking and EMG recording to collect information on the subtle and not consciously present movements of the eyes and face.  We intervene at a crucial intersection between stimulation and conscious thought that helps to negates the distortion of perception.

While we may not be in the business of discerning the color of dresses, we are equipped to understand similar problems.  The dress conundrum is just an example of one of the many ways our brains twist reality for us to better understand it.  Fortunately for us, there is a toolbox at our disposal:  biometrics.