Friday February 27th 2015 was both a magnificent and terrible day for the internet at once.
On one hand, House of Cards binge watchers were blessed to finally enjoy the long-awaited season 3 of the legitimately viral Netflix series that even the Clintons watch.
On another hand, the world’s news choked (and were hardly resuscitated) by the story of a dress.
It was probably the first time in the history of science that a neuroscientist and an ophthalmologist get asked their opinion about a dress.
The Internet Theories
I must admit though that the theories the internet raved about were quite entertaining. Some people attributed the differences in perceptions to depressive disorders: if you saw the dress in black and blue, you probably must already get yourself a good shrink. Or not just yet.
Other people romanticized the topic throwing in philosophical questions and attributing the difference in people visual perceptions to their differences in perspectives, originating from the fact that they grew up in different environments and see the world differently. It almost turned into an athesist-versus-believer topic.
I need to call a friend
I personally had to call Dr. Raymond Najjar at 2.30 a.m on Friday, a Stanford-based neuroscientist who also happened to be a friend and my microbiology lab partner back in college. Ray works on sleep science and circadian rythms studies among others, and a lot of his work involves research around visible light and how our brains interpret it.
“I know why you’re calling me my friend, your curiosity must have been keeping you up at night”- said Ray.
“Listen”, I said, “I have read a few articles, but still alot of the biological facts do not seem to make sense to me. In what color did you see the dress?”
“I saw it in black and blue”
“Alright, now we definitely need to talk my friend, because I saw that ridiculous dress in gold and white”.
In fact, according to an informal/readers’ CNN poll, the majority of people who answered the poll said they saw the dress in gold and white, while as you know by now, it was blue and black.
The Science, Briefly
Ray and I did a small exercise, where he asked me to take two white papers and cover the picture of the dress with them, one paper from each side, then slide open them like a window, and repeat the exercise a few times. As I did so, the white in the dress started turning into blue, and if I squinted very strongly as to eliminate everything I am seeing around the dress, I was able to somehow see shades of the dress in black and blue. I must admit it, it was a hard exercise. I’m still not sure if I actually saw it in black and blue or it was my wishful thinking.
Although I personally still have a few questions regarding the scientific implications of this dress story, there has been a scientific consensus that the difference of vision perception among people is due to the concept of color constancy, a human color perception system which ensures that the perceived color of objects remains relatively constant under varying illumination conditions; hence when the illumination conditions (e.g. shadow, lights, tints, etc) are unclear to us (like in the example of this dress image), our visual cortex that usually gives us the image of what we are seeing, seeks help from other parts of the brain (mainly the frontal cortex) to better understand what it is seeing based on previous knowledge (concept also known as top-down processing), and hence a ‘subjective’ color perception occurs based on differences in our human brains. So there is after all a ground for the theory of perspective differences, but the story is less philosophical than outlined by some. The concept of top-down processing in the dress case influenced people’s ability to see the real color in the white and gold people cases, but that is just because they assumed a different contextual setting for the dress and their previous experience of seeing a similar image in an unknown context was as such. Notice that no one saw the dress as a frog, and rare are the people who saw it in other than the two shades that were debated. So it is really not a matter of mere perspectives, but lighting-related/contextual color perspectives.
Although that is not exactly the topic of this article, here is a short video on the colour constancy concept that can facilitate your understanding of the matter.
The aftermath of a gloomy day in the history of the internet left us with many questions, but beyond colors and a quality-degrading media coverage, the fact that such a debate went viral tells us something extremely important about what we know and what we do not know about ourselves as human beings.
This occasion may be the best time in centuries to argue about the need of humans to be more aware about how their brain and body function. With #The Dress viral story, we have been proven that, except from field experts in science and medicine, virtually no human being was capable of explaining how, one of the most basic physiological functions that happens to us every day, the vision and perception of colors, actually happens.
I would like to stop right here, and have a moment of silence for the soul of our academic systems from each and every corner of the world; as I must say we have utterly failed as a humanity to raise brains that understand brains.
If people really knew the underlying science of the colour perceptions, no one would have been so emotional about why they and their friends were not seeing the dress identical, and we would have never heard about that dress story. But that was not the case.
In his NYT Best Seller book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On“, Jonah Berger explains that people, products, and ideas that go viral all have in common an underlying element of ‘high-arousal’ emotions. Such emotions include happiness, anger, appreciation, awe or surprise.
In the dress case, it was an element of surprise that allowed the image to catch fire; when people looked at the image and realized that human vision that is taken for granted as being a uniform process across all of us, was actually not.
Why Are We Surprised?
Over several centuries, our academic systems have evolved to prepare generations of minds to function as service givers; such a system remains stuck in the post-industrialization era, with its primary priority to educate people with a minimum amount of technical and reasoning skills that would allow them to become effective employees.
In school, we first learn how to think about letters, and communicate with a nicely ordered grammatical sentence. It is an element that is essential for mutual social understanding, or at least what they tell us.
After learning the language, we advance our understanding of the world through a few basic logical math equations. It is said math is supposed to allow us to think logically, and hence we push ourselves to take it further up towards more complex equations.
And then one day, after learning where our native country lies on the map, how it gained its independence (or invaded other nations), we finally get to the classes of biology, which at some point we don’t even call it as such but ‘General Sciences’ instead, as we mix it together with other sciences such as physics and chemistry.
‘Biology’ has its etymology in two Greek words: [*bios* = life, and *logos* = science].
The science of life is mainly concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, and chronological evolution.
It turns out the science of life is just another topic in life. It also turns out that we grow up equally thinking that being aware about the science of life is as secondary as how it felt in school.
We pursue different career tracks in life; From business to engineering, design to computer science.
While we think we are contributing to our personal and social welfare through impacting the growth of the economy, we forget that we have been learning about the processes and functioning systems of all the machines, except those of our own body system and personal machine.
A Clash with Real Life
As we start going up the ladder of power and gain potential to influence existing processes or establish new ones, that same brain that was trained not to be aware of the science of its own structure, function, and evolution finds itself setting up rules and regulations for the world and its people that completely do not fit with its nature, structure, or function.
Organizational psychology and organizational leadership are two examples of an optimistic window that is trying to close the gap between a human-unsavvy and mercenary business world and the science of our physiology and psychology. We have clearly witnessed a greater understanding of the workplace rules and motivations and policies among organizations and governments that address such needs. As such, we have seen a lot of companies shifting towards more flexible working hours compared to the 8-5 rigid shifts, managements trying to find more flexible alliances with their employees in a workplace environment with record high turnover rates, or overall programs that take into account that an employee goes to work as a whole human being and not just an employee.
That said, we clearly remain miles away from a true radical solution for an issue that plagues our system, which is a general lack of understanding of the human species of its its own psychology and physiology, and which can only be addressed through an educational revolution.
Love, empathy, hate, resistance, social acceptance, crime, and many more existential topics that make people struggle every day and with which we deal on a constant level are very rarely addressed in school, if at all, with their real nature as physiological processes. We have discussed them through writings, opinions, social essays to the instructor, in each and every form that put them merely under a philosophical spotlight, but barely scratched the surface of their biological nature.
What our academic instructors have been failing to mention is the essential details lying under that wider philosophical picture, the small and tiny molecules and processes that together make up the final image of who we are, what we see and feel, and why our body reacts to life the way it does.
By doing so, our academic systems have taken our rights as humans to help ourselves lead a happier life through a mind that understands itself.
What We Really Need
In today’s mind-boggling rise of entrepreneurial internet businesses, there has been an equally rising demand for hard skills.
The need for the know-how of coding, engineering, design, among other skills stroke us quickly as a main educational requirement in order to be able to implement technological and scalable world-changing ideas. The fact that entrepreneurs often fail though is not due to the fact that they didn’t find a good coder or a skilled graphic designer, rather to the lack of their understanding of how their product needs to psychologically fit itself in its audience’s lives.
In my masters thesis project that I conducted at the University of Minnesota in 2012, I was interested in knowing what could be the psychological barriers for the implementation of mobile health among healthcare workers. As a conclusion of a meta-analysis of the literature, I found out that four main factors governed the resistance of people towards newly introduced systems: 1) the system’s ease of use, 2) the system’s usefulness to the user, 3) the fact that some opinion leaders may be using it, and 4) facilitating factors, such as the availability of the organizational management support through technical trainings. While any developer or student in computer science may have been able to develop a healthcare application, only an enlightened person about the ins and outs of the human mind would have sealed the deal through proper integration of the above factors, and allowed the system to be adopted by the staff.
In his 2013 TED Talk ‘Training the brains of psychopaths’ Daniel Reisel discusses how our ability to understand the brain and reverse engineer it has the ability to change the tenor of society as a whole. In his research, he highlights that the population of inmates he studied over a period were deficient in amygdala, the part of the brain that is usually responsible for empathy among other emotions, which is partially the reason why inmates commit immoral acts. “When you think about it, he says, it is ironic that our current solution for people with dysfunctional amygdalas is to place them in an environment that actually inhibits any chance of its further growth. […] Instead, perhaps we might think of rehabilitation through programs such as Restorative Justice, which encourages perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions. This stimulates the amygdala and may be a more effective rehabilitative practice than simple incarceration.”
The question is, do we ever address such a brain-structure reality that could influence the design of our prison systems in a social sciences course or a biology project early in schools? Or do we keep growing up writing essays on why or why not support executing people without the mere insight of why people commit immoral acts in the first place?
At the recent 2015 World Economic Forum meeting in DAVOS, Tania Singer, Director at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences whose research focuses on the developmental, neuronal, and hormonal mechanisms underlying human social behaviour and who is recognised as a world expert on empathy, argues that we need to devise new economic models that accommodate the real complexity of human nature. “We need to move beyond classical notions of “homo economicus” and formulate new models […] that would then allow us to cultivate greater powers of compassion and build these into a new Caring Economics that fully reflects what it is to be human.”
How Much Can Singer’s work not just be part of a ministry-funded research project but also part of an academic training very early in our youth?
While the story of a dress may have reignited the interest of some scientists to focus on further understanding color perceptions in our brains, I hope it will also urge the academic world to reassess how much knowledge of the self is needed to understand it better, live a happy life, raise human-aware generations, and most importantly not to stumble the internet ever again by a story as basic as a dress color.
The Blue & Black Revolution
As a biologist by education, I can tell you one thing. Biology and especially neurophysiology and evolution have completely changed my life, and taught me how to interpret the world from an informed window of its nature; and I will ensure my kids learn these two subjects in and out, before any coding lesson.
I will be optimistic to think of future academic systems that teach generations more about themselves; but even as a status quo, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms have made it easier than ever to take a class online, from top world class universities, and for free. You can start the academic revolution with yourself here, today, and now.
Afterall, there may be nothing wrong to have had the story of a blue and black dress forever change your life.
Free top-notch classes; start here: