What the dress tells us about ourselves

February 27th, 2015

In the case that you didn't log on to Facebook yesterday, you'll be glad to know that you missed a complete national freakout over an article of clothing. Within hours, the social media world went completely insane over whether a dress — or more specifically, a picture of a dress — was white and gold or black and blue. I saw white and gold (and that is what it is, of course!) I saw it, thought it was interesting, and then I continued on with life. That wasn't the case for many people.

One person wrote on the Amazon page for the dress, "This dress ruined my life." Another observer noted wisely, "This dress is clearly an experiment designed by aliens who wanted to see if we would start a civil war … Nice try, aliens. We've started wars for way stupider reasons than this." I'm certain that a great many Americans struggled to fall asleep because of the cognitive dissonance they had just experienced!

But I think this offers us a slightly humorous and lighthearted means of making some serious observations about ourselves and perception. First, this dress obviously indicates that most Americans have little to no scientific understanding of neurology and its relationship to perception. This dress experiment is interesting and boggling, of course. But it is a solid example of how our brains shape what we see by context and by choosing what sort of information is to be considered. Our brains won't allow us to see both black and blue and white and gold at the exact same time, so it discounts some information necessarily. This dress accomplished, if nothing else, the realization for Americans that our brains do not always see things "as they are" but rather make choices for us. How does it feel, fellow Americans, to realize that freedom of will is at least to some extent dependent upon the limitations of the brain? (I am, for the record, not a compatibilist … I very much believe in libertarian free will).

Take for example this image from the National Geographic show "Brain Games" (which is on Netflix, so you should go watch it … now!) Most people see two completely different shades of gray here, but in reality it is actually the same color gray. Don't believe me? Put your index finger in between the two squares … it's the same! But our brain processes a shadow because of the gradient and, thus, because it has to choose between information in our memory about gradients and the actual color of the image, it makes a choice and darkens the image for us! Yes, I know … it's weird!

Secondly, I think the dress should compel us to realize that, fascinating as it is, it isn't that fascinating, at least not to be worth the sort of social media panic attack that it has caused! Again, we should already know that this is the way that our brains work. This should be high school biology or at least a lesson learned from the back of a cereal box. Let's take a chance to go outside and look at the night sky and awe at the fact that there are tens of billions of other solar systems within our own galaxy … and then realize that there are one hundred billion galaxies within the observable universe! Let's really talk about incomprehensible! Or maybe take a hike to the top of a glacier mountain and look down upon the tops of clouds and take in the fact that this world is vastly more gorgeous than our daily lives lead us to believe. Or take a moment and look into your children's eyes, realizing that you hold a precious immortal independent soul within your gaze. A dress can be interesting, but we should find other parts of life exceptionally more so!

On a much deeper level though, the dress allows us an opportunity to reflect that we all perceive things differently. If a dress can be seen in two completely different ways, how many other aspects of life can be seen with a variety of perceptions? This doesn't mean that there is no absolute, no concrete reality. Relativism and pluralism are poor and self-contradicting philosophies, but this doesn't discount the fact that with every event and every deed and every word in this life has not one but a near infinite amount of perceptions to it.

When we find ourselves in conversation and even mission with others, we have to take into account context. Assuming that another individual is a blank slate or that their experiences have been, more or less, akin to our own is like saying "If you don't see white and gold, you're not seeing it right!" No. There is still truth, but our biological make up, memories and experiences have an ability to create very different ways in which we see the world. That is, after all, why we philosophers and theologians have come up with the term "worldview." Like our eyes and our brains, the world and reality are seen through certain lenses, and though those lenses may misconstrue the reality of what we see, choice is not always a factor in the matter. Our brains are exceptionally complex and even our freedom to see the world in a certain way — maybe even the right way — is part of that complexity.

The point is that most of the time we walk around with an assumption that we see the world the way it really is. But we are not so objective creatures; we are extremely subjective individuals who have opinions developed by decades of life, by deep cultural and societal traditions, by religious experiences and by personal encounters. Be gracious to one another, whether someone sees the dress as white and gold or black and blue. And be gracious to those who see the world, and perhaps even God, in a way that is different from you. This doesn't mean that conversation or even challenging conversation should be off the table. But it may be that their worldview is as deeply rooted in their mind as yours is and that means that for them or for you, God may be "obviously" white and gold or black and blue.

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