Dresses on the brain (illustration by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)

Last night, the internet lost its collective cool over what seemed like a relatively trivial question: the color scheme of what we can all agree is a fairly uninspired dress. When 21-year old Caitlin McNeill posted a picture of the dress in question on her Tumblr, asking followers to weigh in on its coloring, controversy ensued, spawning thousands of Tumblr posts, tweets, and Facebook statuses: Was the dress blue and black? Or was it white and gold? In all fairness, the heavily filtered picture makes it difficult to tell.

But the real question is not whether the dress is blue and black or white and gold: it’s why the dress has managed to so thoroughly captivate such a wide audience. Countless dress-related articles have materialized in the last 48 hours, and the New York Times reports that Buzzfeed’s coverage of the controversy broke the site’s previous traffic records. How did a low-quality picture of an unremarkable dress surpass so many cat GIFs and so many “which Disney princess are you” quizzes?

What fascinates us about the dress, I think, isn’t its color: it’s the degree to which our perceptions can diverge. How could the same image appear so different to various people? The dress controversy is compelling because it touches, however unsophisticatedly, on some of the oldest and most difficult questions in philosophy of mind.

In the seminal paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel asked us to imagine that we occupy the role of a bat, a creature whose perceptive apparatuses differ markedly from our own. Most of us probably can’t imagine what it would be like to make regular use of echolocation in any qualitative sense, although we may have some conceptual grasp of what it would mean for us to do so. The thought experiment shows that there is some essential “what-it’s-likeness” about our experiences that can’t be boiled down to objective descriptions provided by impartial outsiders. The experiences that comprise this “what-it’s-likeness” are often called qualia. Other people’s qualia are fundamentally inaccessible to us: we can understand what a friend means when she says she is hungry or tired, but we can’t share her hunger or tiredness. Insofar as we’re also hungry or tired, our hunger or exhaustion is our own.

Qualia are disturbing for many reasons, not least because they’re so difficult to explain. (What are they? Scientific explanations, which describe how qualia are instantiated, can’t quite capture their distinctive, qualitative aspects.) But perhaps the most disturbing qualia-related challenge is what’s called the “problem of other minds.” If we can’t experience other people’s experiences, how can we know that they have any? The world of another person remains mysterious to us. Perhaps we’re interacting with androids or “philosophical zombies,” beings who behave like us externally but don’t have any internal, qualitative mental life.

The dress is a forceful reminder of the enigmas of perception. Our friends may not differ from us as markedly as we differ from bats — but they differ from us enough to see white and gold when we see black and blue. And that’s frightening.

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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

6 replies on “The Philosophical Anxiety Behind #TheDress Controversy”

  1. The “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” question, the idea that, at a fundamental level, we’re all attempting to communicate or sympathize across an infinite chasm, can be frightening, for sure. I’d suggest, however, that it’s only tangentially relevant to the dress color question.

    Because the dress’ colors will switch for almost all of us — on one look, it’s clearly blue/black, and on another it’s clearly white/gold in cool shadow — the dress raises more mechanistic questions about perception and the brain’s interpretation of that which is perceived. While it’s true that we all perceive things slightly differently — and that bats and humans certainly do! — the dress is more provocative as a nudge or reminder that every creature’s interpretation of its surroundings is part hard-wiring, part conditioning. (It’s also totally unsurprising for most painters, who see the dress and think, “Oh, yeah…reflected light doing interesting things to our brains.”)

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