Is This Shoe Pink or Gray—and Can Your Answer Really Tell You Anything About Your Brain?

Here's what experts have to say.

Photo: Alex Sandoval

The sneaker in the photo is obviously gray and teal...or most definitely pink and white, depending on whom you ask.

This may seem nonsensical, but there are explanations for why people may see the same image differently.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

The theory is that "left-brained people" see gray and teal, and "right-brained people" see the sneaker as pink and white.

The terms "left-brained" and "right-brained" have come to refer to personality types in popular culture, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). The theory is that people who use the right side of their brains more, or "right-brained people," are more creative, thoughtful, and subjective. Those who use the left side of their brains more, so-called "left-brained people," are more logical, detail-oriented, and analytical.

However, not all scientists support the right-left brain concept. Research published in PLOS One in 2013 debunked the theory. Findings from a two-year study led by University of Utah neuroscientists who conducted analyses of brain imaging found that specific mental processes take place in each side of the brain and that individual differences don't favor one hemisphere or the other.

According to Ivan Schwab, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, using the right-brain/left-brain theory to explain different interpretations of the sneaker photo would not make sense. "I don't think I could point to any evidence, any study, that would back that up," Dr. Schwab told Health.

Context Matters

As for the real reason why people see the shoe differently, Dr. Schwab said it's not completely understood. "But the best consideration is contextual, meaning the context in which you see it—lighting, background, what's associated with it."

In 2015, "the color-changing dress" became an internet phenomenon when some people saw its image as white and gold while others saw it as blue and black. The different perceptions were examined more thoroughly by researchers who published their findings in the Journal of Vision in June 2017. The researchers found a correlation between perception and chronotype, which refers to the time you naturally like to go to sleep and wake up. The study found that night owls, or people who like to go to bed really late and wake up later in the morning, are more likely to see the dress as black and blue. But larks, or early risers, are more likely to see it as white and gold.

The different color perceptions have to do with life experience. Larks are used to seeing objects in daylight, so their brains filter the lighting as daylight and are more likely to assume the dress is being bathed in bright sunlight. Night owls do the opposite. These people are more likely to assume the dress is under artificial lighting, and filtering that out makes the dress appear black and blue.

The researchers explored several other theories to explain the different color perceptions of "the dress" in the PLOS One paper, including the idea that age accounts for different color perceptions. The authors write, "it is conceivable that increasing yellowing of the lens with advancing age might change how observers perceive images."

Individual Perceptions

The slightly different visual pigments we all have in our eyes could be another explanation, said Dr. Schwab. "Everybody doesn't see exactly the same color. When you call something red, your friend might see it as red, but they're not seeing exactly the same wavelength as you."

Still, he said the more likely explanation is that it's contextual and that much of it has to do with what the person is expecting when they look at the photo.

Prior experiences have a hand in what we expect and therefore, how we see. "I think what people don't realize is vision is something you learn; it's not something you're given. Plenty of studies have shown that depending on what your exposure is to the world, you can actually see things differently than somebody else," said Don Vaughn, PhD, a neuroscientist at UCLA.

The science isn't totally clear on why people can see the same image differently. But as Vaughn pointed out, "What these illusions make us realize is that we're as unique on the inside as we are on the outside."

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