The dress, Oliver Sacks, and more writing from Elizabeth

The results of the poll in my last post are, at this point in time, 42.3% for blue, 42.3% for white, and 15.3% for other.

In my family, I see blue, both my kids see blue, and Ben sees white. It’s quite funny because the kids are now concerned about Ben’s eye-sight and have been asking him what colour various other objects around the house are. I probably didn’t help the situation by telling them that Ben sees white because his eyes are old and not working so well any more 🙂

The dress drama reminds me of a book I read and thoroughly enjoyed, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, by Oliver Sacks. The book is written as a series of case studies, one of which I wrote about before. The case of the man and his wife starts like this:

Sometimes a student would present himself, and Dr P. would not recognise him; or, specifically, would not recognise his face. The moment the student spoke, he would be recognised by his voice. Such incidents multiplied, causing embarrassment, perplexity, fear – and, sometimes, comedy. For not only did Dr P. increasingly fail to see faces, but he saw faces when there were no faces to see: genially, Magoo-like, when in the street, he might pat the heads of water-hydrants and parking-meters, taking these to be the heads of children; he would amiably address carved knobs on the furniture, and be astounded when they did not reply.

This week I was very sad to read that Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer. He wrote about it in a moving piece for the NY Times My Own Life. I smiled when I read how he describes himself, “I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.” The world will lose an extraordinary mind and a thoughtful and caring human when he dies. Everyone should read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat as it fosters an understanding of neurological conditions which are in many ways swept under the carpet by our society. We are not very accepting of people who say they hear voices or who see things which we cannot and rather than trying to understand the neurological causes, most people will simply assume these people are nuts. On a more visceral level, the book left me questioning what we are. Are we just a bunch of synapses and chemicals sending messages inside a skull? It’s a fascinating read for many reasons.

Elizabeth did some more writing today and I thought I’d share it. This is a recipe for a special type of chocolate cake which she has made up.



3 Bananas
1 jelly
5 chocolate
2 eggs
4 gummy bears
1 candy cane

21 Replies to “The dress, Oliver Sacks, and more writing from Elizabeth”

  1. I was beginning to think I was the one with bad eyesight, but I didn’t see white and that was a relief.
    I liked how Oliver Sachs described himself. Not the words particularly…although they were OK too. But how he seemed to be honest and not let others describe him. I wonder how I would describe myself if I didn’t care what others thought. I mean say how I really see myself.
    Recipe looks good. 🙂

    1. You could write a poem about yourself and never publish it. If you know you’re never going to publish it then you’ll know that you can say whatever you want without caring what others think.

      I’ll let Elizabeth know that you think the recipe looks good. I hope she doesn’t want to make it.

      1. Yes, I could do that. Then have it opened and read at my memorial. (along with all the others poems of what I thought of others. ) LOL

  2. I guessed eggs and chocolate. The gummy bears I thought were either E numbers or cucumbers (vegetable matter in cakes is trendy you know).
    Isn’t it strange doing the dress poll – no way does it look white to me, but my daughter couldn’t understand how I thought it was blue. A man on the radio explained that it is because there is blue from the sky and our brains spend a lot of processing speed “cleaning” blue off the images we see, similar to the way our brains know to turn images the right way up again, as they arrive on our retina upside down. The explanation is that some of our brains clean blue off more than others (weird brains – Oliver Sacks link there). Also the radio did a poll and they found that the older you were, the more likely you were to see blue, which disappointed me!

    1. Yes, I’m disappointed to hear about the poll and age. Let’s just pretend it was a small sample 🙂 My kids are sprightly young things and they both see blue, as do I. And let’s face, we’re right! The dress is blue.

  3. I was a partner in an interior soft furnishings fabrication business for ~20 years, and so have a lot of experience looking at installed items in various lighting conditions and then seeing the photos I would take later. These were just for my records and so weren’t artificially lit other than a flash if the room was dark enough to require that. Included were many photos of curtains front-lit (through the window) in the same way that dress was.

    Based on that extensive experience, it could be a very pale blue or it could be white (very probably not refrigerator or even paper white, but slightly off-white). The fabric is also very reflective (satin or similar), which will strongly affect how something shows in a photo.

    If I had to make a single guess, it would be a neutral (grey-toned) off-white.

    But who cares about the dress anyway! Anybody who knows the answer to that should be able to tell us what color that floor is.

    Oh yes: What if there’s a reflective blue wall off-camera to the right? Or if the room lighting (weaker than the incoming sunlight, but very apparent from the reflections off the fabric) is bluish fluorescents?

    Yes, yes, I’m a spoilsport.

      1. Yes, I saw that, although confusingly they also show a white version (still with black trim). Either way, what we have is really bad lighting. But note the actual color values in the image are very pale blue fabric and gold-brown trim. How someone can see darker blue and black at all is the mystery, more so that some apparently can shift from one to the other or even back and forth (!), but there are a couple articles floating around that explain how that happens. Apparently some people are prone to the effect (to varying degrees)..

      2. Well I don’t see black in the photo when I look at it but I can tell that it’s probably black with light shining on it. So the fabric looks light blue with a brown/gold trim.

  4. Rachel, now you have to assist Elizabeth in making that confection, right?

  5. Sorry, I missed “I hope she doesn’t want to make it..” But could it be an instructive lesson in how mixing together a bunch of things you like separately may not work out so well? OTOH I suppose there’s a risk she might like it.

    1. Yes, I can see that could be a good lesson but at the same time I wouldn’t want to crush her creativity.

  6. I was sad to read that Oliver Sachs has terminal cancer. Like you, I absolutely loved ‘The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat’. Lent the book to someone and never got it back. Would like to re-read it.

    The dress was white and gold to me. I must have ‘old’ eyes like Ben. 🙂 Here’s an article in the Guardian that explains why people see different colours in the dress.

    Elizabeth’s writing is pretty impressive but I’m not so sure about her skills in concocting recipes. Chocolate was easy to spot. I also saw candy but wasn’t sure.

    I hope Elizabeth comes up with some more reasons to put her writing skills to use.

  7. What a yummy recipe! I do hope Elizabeth makes it and we get to see the photos 🙂 Reading through here, I’m fascinated to see what others thought of the dress. I am greatly encouraged to know that both you and your children see the blue as I do. I don’t see any white at all 😉 What a fascinating book you mention here by Oliver Sachs (and very sad news indeed), I have never heard of it so will make note to get it. I love reading about this kind of thing and totally agree with you about the way society is quick to call someone ‘nuts’.
    I realise I forgot to give you the link to my blogging friend Geoff’s blog post about Christchurch, sorry about that. Here it is: I’m sure you’ll find it very interesting and moving (no pun intended…).

  8. Rachel,

    you’ve had a string of interesting posts lately. Keep it up!

    Just two neuro/psycho/atric/ogical observations:

    1. The #dressgate phenomenon makes a brilliant analogy for the climate debate.

    In optical-illusion jargon it’s a ‘bistable percept’ (and by far the best example I’ve come across involving color).

    Note that popular perceptions of the danger posed by climate change are also, for whatever reason, quite bistable. *Most* people *either* see the danger as existentially massive and established beyond any reasonable doubt, *or* as a completely false (and possibly fraudulent) alarm. Most people have hardly moved from whatever pole they occupy, and very few have ever had a truly centrist or ambivalent perception.

    Also, the dress illusion is quite different from—say—the “Necker cube” or any other bistable image I know of. In the case of the dress it’s almost impossible for the average individual to:

    – anticipate that anyone else could possibly see it “the other way”
    – voluntarily see it “the other way”
    – believe that other people are being serious when they claim to see it “the other way”
    – understand how anyone could possibly see it “the other way”
    – understand that there’s nothing “wrong” with people who see it “the other way”

    Remind you of any other popular disagreement? ;-D

    2. The name of the wonderful author to whom this post is dedicated is spelled Oliver Sacks, with a K.

    It’s not a newsworthy mistake on its own! But don’t you find it interesting that once you’d misspelled his name, most of your commenters copied your misspelling, even if they were familiar with Oliver Sacks’ books themselves?

    I think it was Solomon Asch who did the first big studies of how conformism leads us into error. There was one case where a bunch of confederates in an elevator deliberately turned to face away from the door, and the next person who got on the elevator was socially influenced to face backwards as well, something like 9 times out of 10 (from memory—I’d have to look it up).

    1. OH god that is so embarrassing. I even had his name in the title of my post! I’ve changed it now. Thank you for pointing it out. At least I was consistent with the misspelling although that’s not such a good thing because if I’d been inconsistent I could have said it was a typo. But sadly, it was not.

  9. Brad especially will be pleased to know that #dressgate is dead, replaced by #PeckerWeasel.

  10. Now I’m wondering how many dress sales they got off of this.

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