If you want to see someone get disproportionately irritated, tell them the dress is gold and white when they see a blue-and-black garment. Or try telling them that the voice is saying “Laurel” when they hear “Yanny.”
Viral perception arguments—at first, fascinating, then slightly annoying—may seem like silly internet disagreements. But think about this: They’re telling us that some of us truly do see, hear, and experience the world differently than others. One study published in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Pain even found that people who fear pain may experience more of it after workouts or when injured.
“Yes, there are real differences between people in what we see and hear, and there can also be variation over time in how we see or hear one and the same image or sound,” says Jan Brascamp, PhD, assistant professor of psychology in the neuroscience program at Michigan State University.
Same stimuli, different perceptions
How is that possible? There are a few factors. First, perception isn’t an immediate reflection of the “raw input” that our senses provide, but the mind’s interpretation of that input, Brascamp says. So, for example, when you see something, your eyes have cells that detect the light and send information about its color, or wavelength, to the brain. Meanwhile, your brain is relying on the signals your eyes are sending, but they have limitations, so your brain, informing the experiences you’ve had, fills in the blanks.
Brascamp offers an example: Let’s say you stand in front of a stained-glass window through which the sun is shining. When somebody looks at a part of your face that is covered by a red patch of light coming through the glass, the cells in that person’s eyes will signal to the brain that red light is coming off your face. But that person does not perceive you as having colored spots: He or she perceives your face as having its normal color, yet with different colors of light shining onto it. But if that same person sees a fire engine drive by, they will perceive the truck as red. A study about the white and gold dress found that factors such as age, eye health, and even the size of the community in which respondents grew up affected their answers.
Physiological and experiential differences, or “prior knowledge,” can also affect other perceptions, says Roozbeh Kiani, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neural science and psychology at New York University in New York City. “My ears may have a little more sensitivity to higher frequencies, and your ears may have more sensitivity to low frequencies that can precipitate the perceptual differences, but the main factor that would lead to different perceptions for the same physical stimulus is really differences in prior knowledge and the fact that perception is an undefined inference problem that heavily depends on prior knowledge,” he says.
Why perception differences matter
“In general, the fact that the mind exploits all kinds of prior assumptions and expectations to fill in gaps in the information it receives applies to all domains of cognition, not just perception. So in that sense, it could contribute to differences in ideology and thinking in society,” Brascamp says. But he adds that illusions like the dress, spurred by differences in perceptual processes, may not play an important role in those societal variations.
Dana Dupuis, founder of Boulder, Colorado-based Echo Listening Intelligence, a consultancy that helps companies foster better listening skills among employees, says perception differences serve an important purpose. They’re a reminder that those who are communicating need to shift their styles to ensure their messages—spoken and unspoken—are understood even among people with different perceptions.
“No two brains are alike. Therefore, the way each brain takes in information is going to be slightly different,” she says.
Kiani says that it’s important to take perception differences into account in interactions between people, “and give or leave room for the possibility that, first, diversity exists not necessarily because people are not paying attention, but because they have different prior information,” he says. And both leaders and employees need to keep in mind that it’s important to provide context and explain information in ways that would potentially overcome gaps in prior knowledge and ensure the message is understood as intended.