Scientific Reasons Behind Some of The Internet’s Strangest Optical Illusions

Scientific Reasons Behind Some of The Internet’s Strangest Optical Illusions March 18, 2021Leave a comment

Remember that online debacle over a certain dress that some people saw as blue and black while others thought it was white and gold? Well, it turns out that optical illusions aren’t as rare as one might think and scientists have weighed in on the causes of some the internet’s strangest optical illusions and why people perceive colors differently.

Artwork, including paintings and photographs, have been baffling optical illusions for centuries, and while most of these illusions originated on the Internet, scientists looked back to some of the older illusions for their research.

Billie Eilish Bought a Pair of Mint Green Shoes

Instagram / Billie Eilish

Singer Billie Eilish recently went on Instagram to show off her mint green shoes and a problem that she had with them. Even though she saw the shoes to be mint green, her dad gave her a compliment on her "pink and white shoes." So, of course, she was baffled and wondered if her father was actually colorblind.

She Swore The Shoes Were Green

Instagram / Billie Eilish

In other photographs, the shoes looked like they had a mint green hue, but that wasn't enough to stop people from believing that the shoes were actually a shade of pink. And the illusion was evident in multiple photographs and in real life, so it couldn't have just been the lighting or a once in a lifetime fluke.

In Photos, They Looked Pink and White

Instagram / Billie Eilish

In close up photographs of the shoes it was genuinely difficult to tell whether or not the singer was lying about the shoe's color. Many fans saw them to be mint green while others could swear that they saw the shoes as pink. And Eilish knew that there was one way to settle this debate once and for all, even if it would anger her fans.

Nike Settled the Debate


The official listing for the shoes on Nike's website included the words "mint green," so there was no use arguing that the sneakers weren't a shade of green. To further simplify matters, Eilish herself pointed out that Nike didn't even sell a pink version of the shoes, so there's no way that she could have gotten a different pair by mistake. So, how did so many people think that the shoes were actually pink?

The Reason Behind the Illusion

Instagram / Billie Eilish

The scientific reason all comes down to lighting and what is in the background of the photo. The reason that so many people believe that the shoes are white is because their eyes use the background of the photo to figure out what color the object in the foreground is. That's the reason why it is difficult to see the shoes as green once you've already seen them as pink without isolating them from their background.

Next to Other Pink Shoes, They Look Green

Instagram / Billie Eilish

Another way to solve this illusion is to put the object in question next to another object that is actually the color that people perceive. Even people who saw the shoes as pink in all of the other photographs taken of them believed that they were mint green after seeing this photograph of the shoes taken next to a pair of pink and white shoes.

Optical Illusions Can Occur on Paper


While many of us are used to seeing optical illusions on the internet, they’ve actually been popping up for centuries in books, on paper, and even artwork. In fact, there’s one painting in London, England that’s simply mesmerizing, and there was no help of computers to make its illusion.

There’s Something Weird About This Painting

Hans Holbein / Public Domain

This painting is known as “The Ambassadors,” and it was completed by German artist Hans Holbein the Younger in 1533. But while the masterpiece looks incredible, there’s some sort of distorted image of an object next to one of the men’s thighs that have baffled some people.

The Distorted Object is a Skull

Hans Holbein / Public Domain

The painter of this piece purposefully painted the human skull at the bottom at an angle, so that the object was only correctly viewable from an extreme angle. This illusion showcases the extreme skill of the painter, who had to figure out how to make the illusion work without the help of computers or other photo editing tools. The way he was able to achieve the final work was with the help of mirrors.

The Masterpiece is an Example of Anamorphosis in Art


The panting went viral in 2018 as people scrambled to figure out what the object was. Then analyst Phillip Kent determined that Holbein had present something called anamorphosis in art when he introduced an object that left people wondering for centuries. In reality, the object is a skull. But that wasn’t the only time netizens went crazy over an optical illusion.

At An Angle, the Image is Perfect

CC / Steve Zucker

This photograph shows the angle that the painting must be looked at in order to see the skull at its correct proportions in person. This work of art continued to inspire other artists for centuries and became one of the most popular illusions of its type in art during the era in which is was made. But nowadays, optical illusions are much more common to come across.

He Named This Optical Illusion Confetti

Twitter / David Novick

In July 2018, Doctor David Novick of the University of Texas named a Twitter photo “confetti.” But this wasn’t a photo with the type of confetti that folks enjoy using at parties or at major events like parades. This was a digital eye teaser that left people baffled.

There Appeared to Be Only Four Shades


Novick had drawn the image himself and it contained 12 dots of different colors with horizontal lines. At a glance, the lines and the dots had shades of purple, green, orange and blue. But according to Novick, that wasn’t the case.

They’re All the Same Color

Unsplash / Sammy Williams

Novick tweeted: “All the dots in the background are the same color, but are perceived as four different colors. The differences are subtle, though, and depend on the size of the image when it’s viewed.” The image was so mind-boggling that it ended up getting over 16,500 likes and over 6,900 retweets.

Twitter Users Were Stunned

Unsplash / John Schnobrich

Twitter users began weighing in on Novick’s optical illusion. One user stated: “If you look at each dot individually, you can tell [they’re the same color]. But if I didn’t know they were the same, I would have been none the wiser.” But this was not a rare occurrence.

These Chest Drawers Confused the Internet

Reddit / agamiegamer

In December 2017, Reddit user agamiegamer posted a photo of a chest full of drawers and a question that had everyone scratching their heads. “What Color Do You See: Pink and White or Blue and Gray?” Suffice it to say, the internet was once again divided.

One User Thought It Was Pink and White


One Reddit user commented: “Well it’s definitely pink and white, but the lighting makes the white appear light blue. Anybody with a brain can tell it’s actually white.” But others didn’t agree with the comment.

Others Thought It Was Dirty Pink and Baby Blue


Another User provided a different point of view when he wrote: “A warm ambient light wouldn’t produce that drawer color as white, so my eyes tell me it has to be bluish based on experience. So the colors I think will be dirty pink/violet and baby blue.” Unfortunately, all anyone could do was agree to disagree.

This Kate Spade Handbag Had Everyone Talking


Then in October 2016, Twitter user Taylor Corso posted a photo of a Kate Spade handbag. “Everyone say hello to my new baby,” she wrote. And then, the internet flared up with speculations about the color.

She Claimed It Was Blue Not White


One Twitter user wrote back, ““This is a nice white purse, Corso.” Then Corso clarified, “It’s blue.” And once again, netizens were up in arm over what color the purse actually was. And everyone had a different opinion.

Another Photo Made Its Color Known


After Corso took and uploaded another photo of the blue purse, people could more accurately see its sky blue color because of the lighting of the photo. The dark background also made the purse appear darker, which made people unable to believe their eyes. Was this really the same purse that had been photographed before?

But Lighting Still Caused Confusion


Even though the internet had basis to believe that the purse was actually blue, the bag's hue still baffled people who believed they may have been duped by the person who uploaded the photo. But was this trick of lighting as simple as it seemed? And why couldn't people who saw the bag as blue explain why to people who believed that the bag was white?

The Bag’s Color Confused Them


People continued to argue over the bag’s color while Corso maintained that the bag was not white. This sent some people spiraling in confusion. One person even admitted, “I feel like I’ve lost all sense of what color means now.”

Corso’s Tweet Gained Traction

PeopleImages / iStock

Within a matter of days, Corso’s post received about 2,000 likes and nearly 400 retweets. But this was not the last time Twitter users would question the color of an object. It happened again in the 2017.

The Sneaker That Puzzled Twitter Users

Twitter / Cammien Ray

In 2017, Twitter users started questioning the color of a pair of sneakers that some people felt was gray and teal. But as is common in optical illusions, a lot of people were disagreeing with the initial assessment.

Some Saw a Pink and White Sneaker

Twitter / Cammien Ray

Some Twitter users believed that the sneakers were actually white and pink, not gray and teal. So, one user changed the photo’s lighting to enhance the colors. But this only made the situation more chaotic.

The Enhanced Photo Boggled People’s Minds

YouTube / TBS

One Twitter user commented: “Oh my God [at] first I saw teal and gray on the original. But now I saw this reply in pink and white, and now the original is pink and white too, what?!” Then another user added their two cents in, writing: “It was the same for me? WHAT IS THIS?!”

The Shoes Were Sold in Two Colors


While trying to figure out what color the shoes actually were, internet users scoured the internet to try to find the original listing for the shoes. Some people found an exact match that were pink and white, but the same pair was sold in a mint green hue, so no one was sure which color they were actually looking at.

The Mystery of the Sneaker Was Revealed

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

It was later confirmed that the sneakers were white and pink and the debate was put to rest. But then a dress created an optical illusion nightmare that caused quite a stir around the world.

The True Colors Were Evident

Twitter / Cammien Ray

When the lighting of the photo was changed, it became evident that the shoes were really pink and white. The owner even admitted that their shoes looked more like the photo on the right in person. The reason that they appeared blue was because of lighting, but this wouldn't be the last time that a similar illusion broke the internet.

The Dress That Freaked Everyone Out


In February 2015, Caitlin McNeill posted a photo of a dress on Tumblr with a question. “Guys please help me – is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and [we] are freaking out.”

The Internet Debated Over the Dress

Instagram / @kimkardashian

People from all over the world started sharing their opinion on the color of the dress using the hashtag #TheDress. Even celebrities like Kim Kardashian weighed in claiming she thought it was white and gold and it turns out that she was right. But why did people see things differently?

The Lighting Played a Huge Factor


Because the lighting in the room where the photo of the dress was taken was very bright, the dress appeared washed out and what was actually a blue and black dress appeared to be white and gold. To prove this effect, internet users photoshopped the original image to increase the brightness of the photo, thus increasing the effect, and to decrease the brightness, showing the true hues of the photo.

The Dress Became a Phenomenon

Warner Bros. Television Distribution

Following the viral attention of the photo, the blue and black dress immediately sold out online and became the must-have fashion item of the season, must to the surprise of the stores that were carrying it! And the attention given to the illusion surrounding it even inspired them to offer the dress in other colors, too.

The Dress Manufacturers Created a White and Gold Version


The viral nature of the photo of the dress was good for someone in the end. The manufacturers of the dress responded to the sudden interest in their product by producing a version that was actually white and gold. And while the dress kind of died off in popularity in the year after the photo went viral, the people who were duped by the illusion still wanted answers about why they saw what they saw.

The Illusion Was Clear to See


While some people couldn't believe their eyes when they saw the photo of the dress, other people couldn't believe that their friends could see anything else but the colors that they were seeing. The nature of the photo was a visual "Yanny vs. Laurel," but scientists had some answers about why the photo was so visually confusing.

Two Universities Shared Their Thoughts On Optical Illusions


As the number of optical illusion debates continued to rise, the University of Bradford and the University of Giessen shined a light on the situation. And apparently, the confusion was the result of the way our brain works.

The Brain Tries to Process Colors and Shades

Roxana Wegner / Getty Images

According to the two universities, when people stare at an object, their brains try to process its shades and colors. But the brain can easily be tricked since natural and indoor lighting changes all the time.

Lighting Affects How We See Colors

haydenbird / iStock

Around noon, the sun creates a blue shade over objects. So naturally, our brain compensates by getting rid of the excess color of an object. This happens indoors with artificial lighting, but in this case, yellow is the color that the brain tries to alter.

Some Brains Remove More or Less Colors

haydenbird / Getty Images

The brain will also remove excess yellow or blue if the eyes perceive any red or green hues in the peripheral vision. So, in cases like the dress, some people’s brains removed more shades of colors than others, hence why one group saw a black and blue dress and others saw white and gold. And a university professor explained why this happened.

It Was the Special Colors in the Photograph


In 2015, Professor Marina Bloj at the University of Bradford explained why this color confusion wouldn’t have happened with other dresses. “The confusion would have never occurred if it was not for the special colors present in the photograph. It would not have happened with other colored dresses,” she told The Daily Mail.