Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dress Morphing. There Really Is No Spoon!

I'm sure by now you've all seen the photograph of "the dress." What color is it?

Just in case you've been living in a cave somewhere, some girl snapped a photo of a dress, and the interwebs are all a twitter because some folks see the dress as white with gold lace while others see it as blue with black lace.

When I first saw it, I was firmly in the white and gold camp. Seriously, I couldn't wrap my brain around how anyone could possibly see blue and black. So, just to convince myself that it wasn't some sort of weird trick, I tried importing it into a graphics program and playing with the color balance as one site suggested. It didn't take much tweaking for the blue & black colors to appear.

Here's an example that I found on the web...

The original is in the middle, the left has been color adjusted more to the gold end of the spectrum, and the image on the right has been tweaked in the blue direction.

But here's the weird part. Once I saw the blue & black - even when the color balance was restored to neutral, I couldn't go back to seeing it as white and gold!

Actually that's not entirely true. Now when I look at the photo, I initially see white & gold, but almost immediately it morphs right before my eyes and turns into blue & black. Even the left-most image above now looks light blue and faded black to me.

So what's going on here? I've read about a zillion explanations of this phenomenon... rods & cones, visual differences between people, RGB percentages, yadda, yadda, yadda. But as far as I'm concerned, the real explanation is simply this: There is no spoon!

OK, let me back up. Have any of you seen the film, The Matrix? It's a somewhat disappointing science fiction film based on the premise that everything we think is real is actually a computer generated reality, and that in truth, the world was long ago taken over by aliens who are now "farming" humans in giant warehouses, and we're all really living in little pods with our brains plugged into an enormous computer game to keep us entertained.

I thought it was a fascinating premise, but the filmmakers just glossed over all of the interesting parts so they could focus all of their energies on men with sun glasses flying through the air shooting at each other. Because, really, who wants to be bothered with trivialities like character development and plot when you've got more important things like guns and special effects to focus on?

But while the film was an overall disappointment, there was one small scene that really stuck with me. Rather than trying to explain it, I'll just show it to you... don't worry, it's only about a minute long because, you know, the filmmakers didn't want to waste time actually giving us something to think about, we have to get back to killing each other.... (she says with only the slightest amount of sarcasm.)

Anyhow, I think that all of this points to a fundamental truth about the human experience. I don't mean that I think we're all actually living in pods with aliens sucking off of our vital bodily fluids or whatever they were doing. 

What I mean is that in a very fundamental way, we are incapable of perceiving objective reality, and in truth, everything we humans experience is an abstraction of one sort or another. The reality is that we cannot interact with the universe directly, so everything we experience is filtered through our bodies and "made sense of" through our brains.

Some folks might argue that objective reality does not even exist, and that everything we think is real is simply human-generated illusion. I guess I'll leave that question to the religious leaders and quantum physicists, because the main point I'm trying to make here is that perception is most decidedly not reality.

We can't agree on what color the dress is, because colors don't actually exist - they are simply a human abstraction that we use to help us understand the world around us and how different objects reflect light.

So why does any of this matter? Well, I'm not entirely sure that it does... but I do find it helpful to remember that just because I happen to see the world in one particular way, it does not therefore follow that this is the way the world actually is

Perhaps this is just a stupid mental trick, but when I'm confronted with a really stressful situation, it helps me to remember that in some fundamental way, it actually is not real. 

Seriously, back when I was running the music school, the politics of it all could get really out of control (musicians can be irrationally passionate, you know.) Anyhow, often, as I was laying in bed at night drifting off to sleep I would repeat to myself "There is no music school, there is no music school, there is no music school..."

I also think that when I'm confronted with people who hold a radically different worldview from my own, it might be helpful to remember that they're not just ignorant, pig-headed or stupid - they actually do see the world (and perhaps the dress) differently than I do. 

Somehow, I think the world might be a better place if we could all wrap our brains around that idea.

Anyhow... I think I've blathered on this topic long enough. What do you all think? Am I just running in mental circles, or does any of this make any sense at all? What color is that damned dress anyhow?

In the meantime, I think I'll go back to working on my taxes.... Repeat after me: "There is no IRS, there is no IRS, there is no IRS..."


  1. I don't have anything profound to say, but since that doesn't stop most of the world from talking, I'll just blather on. ;)

    I see blue and black ... what is interesting to me about this is that I have noticed that my daughter and I see colors very differently. Neither of us are color blind. I think that things perceived through our senses (color, sound, etc.) are subjective based on how our brains work ... I do think there are areas of objective reality but these have more to do with how we treat other people than with sensory experiences (for example, two people may have very different perceptions about whether or not coffee-flavored ice cream is tasty, but it's harder for me to imagine 2 people disagreeing on basic societal parameters being right or wrong--lying, murder, etc.). Not sure if I'm making sense so maybe I'll quit while I'm behind ...

    1. Well, I'd like to think that you're right in terms of basic social parameters, but I keep thinking of something I heard on the news the other day about the would-be terrorists who got captured as they were trying to leave the country. One of them apparently posted something somewhere asking if killing people in this country would be enough to earn him martyr status and assure him a spot in heaven.

      Then I think of radically different societies that existed in the past who performed ritual sacrifice and stuff like that. And you don't have to look terribly far in this country to find people who believe that all sorts of "lying, cheating & stealing" is perfectly acceptable. I mean, I think you'd have a hard time convincing a "free market fundamentalist" that greed is anything but good!

      I'm not saying that I think any of that is OK - I think it has profound karmic consequences, and I sure as heck don't want to live in a society that thinks that way.

      But I do think that I have to acknowledge that there are other people and societies out there who see it very, very differently than I do.

    2. You are right and I knew that argument would come up ... and I think there always have been and always will be those who embrace what I consider to be evil.

      Live and Learn has interesting comments about the perceptions of others and I think she is right--if we try to see how others view "reality" we may be more empathetic as a result. A good thing for all of us to consider!

    3. She said it sooo much better than I did.

      BTW - I'm not saying that I condone things like killing etc. But I think if we could wrap our brains around the way those we consider to be "evil" think, then perhaps we could come up with better ways of dealing with them.

    4. I was pretty sure you weren't in favor of murder. ;) I think, if we had better understanding of how others think, we could deal with it more wisely, but I think I'm wading into muddy philosophical waters here ...

    5. True, but philosophical waters are always muddy, aren't they? :-)

  2. Maybe not in a scientific way, but in dealing with people, I think it is important to remember that perception is reality. A person may perceive a situation one way which is totally different than others do. Their perception may not be correct in the purest sense of the situation, but it is their reality. For instance, a student says, "The teacher 'picks' on me more than anyone else," when in fact the student gets "picked on" the same as others. That's the absolute reality, but in this student's mind it's not the truth. This is splitting hairs in a sense, but I think it's important place to start in disagreements. A person's perception is their reality, instead of that person is wrong. I have seen a lot more cooperation happen between people when they understand each others "realities".

    I hope this dress example is a concrete way for people to think about perceptions and their interactions with others. Hopefully, this will lead them to have a some empathy. And I hope to this leads to world peace and unicorns in the streets. :)

    1. Yes, yes... that's exactly the point I was trying to make! Ane I think we could use some unicorns right about now, don't you?

  3. I second world peace and unicorns! :)

    And kudos to Cat for taking an argument about a dress color to philosophy!

    1. Gosh, at this rate, we should have unicorns marching through the streets in no time! :-)

  4. There is no snow, there is no snow, there is no snow . . . so why am I shovelling it again?

    1. OK... that one nearly made me spew all over my computer screen.

  5. I am one of the simple people who does believe in objective reality, and one that can be perceived similarly by two different people, at least in a lot of cases. The color of the dress is certainly one of those "whatever you perceive" situations. But when the dress falls off the hanger, you know, the gravity and our perception of it in action is objective, universal, all that stuff.

    Or at least that's my $0.02.

    Thanks for the food for thought today!

    1. Well... I suppose when it comes to practical every day stuff you do have a point - as long as you don't do too much reading about quantum physics or, heaven forbid, string theory!

  6. I couldn't believe you were writing about the dress. But I like where you went with it. I saw the dress and thought, who cares. That's as deep as my brain went. I do believe that when it comes to perception we base it on our life experiences to that point and therefore there is rarely a black and white right or wrong.

    I was so excited about the Matrix movie but like you found the thought-provoking premise was lost to the special effects. i kept hoping they would get over themselves and get back to the story so I saw all three parts, getting more frustrated with each.

    Btw, I see a dirty off-white dress with faded gold. Did you hear some man had the dress tattooed on his body, Now that's taking the discussion too far, in my opinion.

    1. Ha! CatMan LOVED The Matrix movies, but by the end of the last one I'd had just about all of the "bang bang bang bang" that I could take!

      I think the thing about the dress that really got to me was when it started to morph before my eyes - it still sorta freaks me out a bit, but I suppose all optical illusions are like that. I can't quite bring myself to read the article about the guy getting a tattoo of the dress - eeeewwwww!!!! I think that's taking the quest for 15 minutes of fame to absurd proportions!

  7. The whole dress thing nearly passed me by because I assumed people were talking about fashion, which I have absolutely no interest in, so ignored it. By the time I realized they were talking about psychology, which interests me a great deal, the conversation had mostly moved on. I even missed your post, for some reason, until I was scrolling back looking for something else.

    Philosophers have traditionally distinguished between primary properties, like size, that we supposedly perceive 'as they are in the world', and secondary properties, like color, that we perceive as one thing but are something quite different in the real world (wavelength of light). It's the secondary properties where we really can't know whether our perception bears any resemblance to anyone else's perception. On the other hand, the amount of fuss created by this dress means there must be a fair degree of consistency, otherwise this kind of thing would happen all the time, and be totally unremarkable.

    I'm a firm believer in objective reality, and that our perception is not so wonky that we can't generally agree on what it is. On the other hand, the 'veil of perception' is thicker in some places than others. Given the question of whether there's a spoon or not, we can generally agree (if we do live in the Matrix, we haven't figured out how to subvert it yet). Whether the teacher picks on one student more that the others is an objective fact, but the perception of it is subject to so many filters that it's almost impossible for one of the students (or the teacher, probably) to observe it accurately without introducing careful, systematic observations of a kind totally unsuitable in a classroom. Whether something is right or wrong... well, that's a whole nother discussion! I'm not sure I can get my head round, "There is no music school." There'd be a part of me insistently replying, "But there IS!"

    The Matrix: Very cool, stylish action movie with some pretty cool philosophy and some really terrible science. I loved it (with a big effort to ignore the bad science), but didn't bother watching the sequels. I once used a fairly long clip from it in a lecture on Descartes (can we be sure of anything?)

    1. I think my dislike for the Matrix series may be colored by the fact that I saw the second film in the series before the first one (CatMan erroneously thought I'd already seen the first one when we rented the second.) So I sorta missed the whole setup and went straight to the flying men with guns & sunglasses.

      Anyhow, I'm still not entirely convinced about the objective reality thing. Obviously, in a practical sense it's totally true, the world exists - as does global warming! :-) But there are actual branches of physics (the real deal, not far-out crazy stuff...) which say that at every instant, every possible occurrence actually happens, and that infinite realities really do exist. I suppose it's all a moot point since we're sorta "stuck" in this reality, but it does make you wonder... :-)

      And I'm still a bit freaked out by how I was utterly SURE the dress was white and gold at first, but now all I can see is black & blue!


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