So, we’ve all seen this stupid dress. It’s beaten us over the head with the white & gold or blue & black debate that I won’t belabor anymore now, we’re over it. But the truth is, this was a great optical illusion, probably the best I’ve ever encountered. Unlike all of the colored circles and squares, lines and zig zags that make up most of the illusions out there, this is a dress. It’s something that someone could wear out on the town. How often have you turned to a girlfriend and remarked, “wow, I really love that white & gold dress,” just to be rebuffed, “thanks, but it’s black & blue”? Could we really interpret colors differently out in the real world?
The truth is absolutely and unequivocally, yes. Because this dress is made up of fabric that is undoubtedly blue and gold (see here). As far as I can tell, we were all 1/2 wrong about the dress, but of course it’s not so black & white (or blue & gold?). We call them illusions, but really this is the natural way our brain interprets the world around us. What we see is shaped and molded by what we are aware of and what we’re not, by what we’ve previously experienced, and how our brain is able to “cut corners” and still provide useful information. At then end of the day (or string of neurons in the brain) what we see is entirely shaped by context.
Another example is shown in the chess pieces to the left. What colors are they? Suppose I told you they were the same color–the exact same shade of gray. Look closely, do you see it? Take your fingers and cover up some of the background around each piece. There it is. Most of us at first glance will interpret the top row as white and the bottom row as black. That’s because they’re chess pieces, they’re supposed to be black and white. But in this illusion they are surrounded by shades of darker or lighter gray that make the pieces seem lighter or darker than they actually are. Some people use more of the actual information around them to build context–these people see the chest pieces as gray (and would see the dress as blue and gold–though I have yet to find someone that sees it this way). Others use mere experience and unconsciously don’t waste time and brain power to closely inspect things they have seen before. If right now you are thinking, “well I’ve never seen that dress before it went viral” the truth is you have seen those colors and in different combinations. Because of those unconscious preconceptions, people tend to see white with gold or black with blue. I think even Michigan fans didn’t see blue with gold! For those of us that do not see the dress as its true colors of blue and gold (and that is absolutely most of us!), the fact of the matter is that our “reality” of the dress is at least half hallucinatory. Does that scare you? If you’re intrigued, then you’ll definitely enjoy the National Geographic Channel documentary series Brain Games.
One particularly intriuging Brain Games episode wasn’t about illusions (although there are plenty of examples of that), but about attention. What’s cool about attention is that it is like mental money, for you to save or to spend. And it can be manipulated. “Top-down” attention is for decision making processes, while “bottom-up” attention is for stimuli, like when your phone rings or you receive a text. We are all multitasking all the time, but most of us aren’t actually wired for it. Professor David Strayer from the University of Utah has done research to suggest that humans are really only equipped to do 1 thing at a time. He speculates that when we’re multitasking, we’re actually switching from one task to another more rapidly than we can consciously observe.
Another interesting facet of attention is known as inattential blindness. This is a failure to notice something unexpected when your attention is focused on something else. We are only aware of what we are aware of—um, duh! But our brains are so cool in this capacity. They can filter out even large objects, such as motorcycles, when we are not focused on them. Attention is really like a spotlight. You can shine it on one thing (about 1/1000 of your entire field of view) at a time. The smaller the beam, the better your focus is on that thing, like high definition. The more you try to take in at once, the bigger the spotlight beam, the blurrier your interpretation of what you are observing and your ability to remember it becomes. Your brain creates a seamless panoramic of your field of view, but at any given time you are actually NOT paying attention to 99.99% of it. Holy cow!
How can we possibly understand all that we are missing if we cannot know what we have missed?
Your brain runs on ~12 watts of power (less than 1/3 of what your refrigerator light bulb uses) and it is evolved to focus on what counts. For most animals, this focus is used to detect mainly predators and occasionally prey. To humans, our focus changes throughout the day. Sometimes we are expending energy to focus on traffic cues and cars on the road. Other times, we focus on reading a memo at work or for me right now, writing this blog at home. But I wonder how much our overly-saturated digitally-consumed world is applying pressures on our brains. We must be stretching the limits of our ability to filter out more of the background and to comprehend things like streaming Netflix on the tv, children running rampant throughout the house, texts on your phone, Facebook on our tablets, spouses asking (and sometimes reasking) about our day…all (seemingly) at once. Mental money, perhaps spent on a future episode of Brain games.