Last year the Internet was taken by storm with a simple photograph of a dress that some people saw as gold and white but others saw as blue and black. A possible successor to #Dressgate was posted to Facebook April 13, and according to some media, the black-and-white image has puzzled “thousands.” But James Pomerantz, a visual perception expert and professor of psychology at Rice, can explain why people might be confused.
“As with #Dressgate, the struggles people have with this new image can be explained by fundamental principles of visual perception,” Pomerantz said. “With #Dressgate, the principle was that of ‘white balance,’ which basically describes how our eyes — and sometimes our cameras — can tell the difference between a white dress illuminated with blue light and a blue dress illuminated with white light.”
Spoiler alert about the new viral image: Pomerantz said the black-and-white image can be seen as the face of a man wearing a cowboy hat with its brim curled upward on either side. Alternatively, it can be seen completely differently, as a bird, vertically oriented with its wings extended and its talons pointed forward, as it would appear viewed from the side.
“The face is strongly illuminated from the viewer’s left side, bleaching out that side of the face so it takes on the same white shade as the paper on which the image is drawn, with no contour separating the face from the background,” Pomerantz said. “That fact alone makes it hard to spot the face itself because so much of its defining contour is missing.”
Pomerantz said that in this way, the image is like one of the famous “Mooney Faces,” one of which can be seen as a woman’s face lit from the right or as the silhouette of a man playing a saxophone. He also said that the same ambiguity arises with Edgar Rubin’s faces-vase image, which provides a textbook example of how hard it can be for people to judge what part of an image is the figure proper and what is the background.
“When a large, white canvas contains patches of black, the eye and brain are biased to interpret the black region as figure and the white region as background, but sometimes this can be totally wrong, and an illusion results.”
Pomerantz, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in psychology from Yale, conducts research focusing on human visual perception with an emphasis on the perception of form and of structure in visual patterns, Gestalt psychology and the role of attention in perceptual organization. He has also published on motion perception, color perception, texture perception, visual imagery and theoretical approaches to perception. Pomerantz is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society and the Society of Experimental Psychologists. For more information, visit http://jamesrpomerantz.com/.