About a year ago, this picture of a dress caused an internet storm. Some people see the dress as blue and black, others swear it is white and gold.* Some people are even capable of seeing it as both, or as different colours entirely. It could well be very first time that a photograph has caused such a bizarre and distinct phenomenon.
A lot of people at the time criticised the fascination surrounding The Dress as yet another silly internet fad, eclipsing the “real” important news of the day. I actually think that dismissing this phenomenon is, if you excuse the pun, rather short-sighted. For perhaps the first time in history, this photo demonstrates that the gulf between people’s visual perception is a lot wider than we first thought and it has opened up a new line of enquiry in the science behind vision (it also got the general public interested in this science, which is always a good thing). Lots of hypotheses were put forward as to why there’s such a split in the world population on the perception of the dress, and it was only in October last year that scientists discovered that it appears that those who saw the white and gold dress were experiencing more activity in the areas of the brain associated with visual perception than those who saw the blue and black. New insight into how the human brain works as a result of an accidentally overexposed photo. I think that’s rather exciting.
I also think The Dress serves as a useful metaphor for exploring spirituality and religion, and what religious belief can mean.
It turns out that the dress photographed is blue and black. But that still doesn’t change the fact that so many people, in fact a slight majority of people, see it as white and gold – even though they now know that it is really blue and black! So although the dress itself is really blue and black, what does that make the photograph? Are the majority of people who see a photo of a white and gold dress?
This paradox is similar to how I perceive spirituality. I think reality itself can be considered on two levels. On one level, there is the reality that “actually” exists, the world governed by physics and maths. This is like the blue and black dress, i.e. the real nature of the dress.
But on another level, there is reality as we perceive it. Because humans perceive things through our senses which are interpreted by our brains, our reality is always subjective. It is in fact impossible for us to see the “real” reality because we are at the mercy of our own sensory organs, which are not perfect, and our brain, which is easily confused and fooled and has so much emotion and psychology going on that it’s always distorting the “reality” we see. This is like the white and gold dress that the majority of people perceive in the photo – the reality that we ourselves experience, despite what the actual reality might be.
So “reality” can be defined as either that which really exists but we do not truly perceive, or that which does not really exist but we do perceive.
And that’s where I think spirituality and religion comes in – the world of gods, spirits and magic. One may argue that these things only exist in our imagination, in our minds – but because we perceive the whole of reality in our minds, does this make them any less real?
This is also why I feel I can hold differing ideas about spirituality in my head. On the one hand, I am something of a Humanistic Pagan; I believe that nature is worth worshipping simply for its own sake, and that it doesn’t actually require the existence of deities or magic in order for us to respect and venerate it. But I am also a Theistic Pagan – I worship deities because I feel “right” in doing so, and I do feel something of a conscious, spiritual presence when in nature or before my altar or conducting a ritual. I do not know exactly what I feel or believe, but I also realise that it doesn’t matter – just as it doesn’t really matter whether you perceive that dress as blue and black, or white and gold. Although it doesn’t seem to make sense, in a way, it’s both.
* For the record, I see it as blue and black. I cannot understand how other people can see white and gold!!
Image: Created by author