The brain lives in a bony shell. The completely light-tight nature of the skull renders this home a place of complete darkness. So the brain relies on the eyes to supply an image of the outside world, but there are many processing steps between the translation of light energy into electrical impulses that happens in the eye and the neural activity that corresponds to a conscious perception of the outside world. In other words, the brain is playing a game of telephone and—contrary to popular belief—our perception corresponds to the brain’s best guess of what is going on in the outside world, not necessarily to the way things actually are. This has been recognized for at least 150 years, since the time of Hermann von Helmholtz. This week, it was recognized by masses of people on the Internet, who have been debating furiously over what should be a simple question: What color is this dress?
Many parts of the brain contribute to any given perception, and it should not be surprising that different people can reconstruct the outside world in different ways. This is true for many perceptual qualities, including form and motion. While this guessing game is going on all the time, it is possible to demonstrate it clearly by generating impoverished stimulus displays that are consistent with different, mutually exclusive interpretations. That means the brain will not necessarily commit to one interpretation, but will switch back and forth. These are known as ambiguous or bi-stable stimuli, and they illustrate the point that the brain is ultimately only guessing when perceiving the world. It usually just has more information to disambiguate the interpretation.
Read the whole story: Slate