Back in 2015, before Brexit, before Trump, before Macedonian internet trolls, before QAnon and Covid conspiracy theories, before fake news and alternative facts, the disagreement over the dress was described by an NPR-affiliated company as “the debate that broke the Internet.” Washington Post called it “the drama that divided the planet.”
The dress was a meme, a viral image that surfaced across social media for a few months. For some, when they looked at the picture, they saw a dress that looked black and blue. For others, the dress appeared white and gold. No matter what people saw, it was impossible to see it differently. If not for the social aspect of social media, you might never have known that some people saw it differently. But since social media is social, learning the fact that millions saw a different dress than you did created a widespread, visceral reaction. The people who saw another dress seemed obvious, blatantly flawed, and possibly confused. As the dress began to circulate on the internet, a tangible sense of fear of nature of what is and is not real, went as viral as the image itself.
At times, so many people shared this perceptual riddle and quarreled about it that Twitter could not load on their devices. The hashtag #TheDress popped up at 11,000 tweets per minute, and the final article on the meme, published on WIRED’s website, received 32.8 million unique views within the first few days.
For many, the Dress was an introduction to something neuroscience has long understood: the fact that reality itself, as we experience it, is not a perfect one-on-one account of the world around us. The world as you experience it is a simulation running inside your skull, a waking dream. We each live in a virtual landscape of eternal imagination and self-generated illusion, a hallucination informed about our lives by our senses and thoughts about them, constantly updated as we bring new experiences in through these senses and think new thoughts about what we have sensed. . If you did not know this, the Dress required for many that you should either go to your keyboard to shout into the abyss or take a seat and consider your place in the big picture.
Before the dress, it was well understood in neuroscience that all reality is virtual; therefore, consensus realities are mostly the result of geography. People who grow up in similar environments around similar people tend to have similar brains and thus similar virtual realities. If they disagree, it is usually about ideas, not the raw truth of their perceptions.
After the dress, well note Pascal Wallisch, a neuroscientist studying consciousness and perception at NYU. When Pascal first saw the dress, it seemed to him that it was obviously white and gold, but when he showed it to his wife, she saw something else. She said it was obviously black and blue. “All that night I was up there thinking about what could explain this.”
Thanks to many years of research into photoreceptors in the retina and the neurons that they connect, he thought he understood the approximately thirty steps in the chain of visual treatment, but “all of it was blown wide open in February 2015 when the dress appeared up on social media. ” He felt like a biologist learning that doctors had just discovered a new organ in his body.