“The Dress,” White and Gold vs. Blue and Black: A Deeper Story

As much as I hated that whole dress conversation that happened over the weekend (if you missed it and were living under a rock, catch up here), it did get me thinking a bit. Because I see white and gold. And for the life of me, I could not get my brain to see blue and black. I wanted to. I tried. I attempted to trick myself. I would cover up bits of the picture so I only saw one part at a time. I turned away and turned back really fast. I looked at my screen on different angles. I looked up different variations of the image online. But for the life of me, I couldn’t see it. I still can’t. And this is where the thinking about life thing started. It’s Schrodinger’s dress. It is both blue and black and gold and white – at the same time. But depending on who you are, you can only see one side of that. And, well, basically, that is all of life, in a nutshell. There are multiple realities, at all times. In arguments, there are always two sides to every story. In life, there are always multiple choices that can be made, and each person may choose differently depending on their situation. The tricky part is when we start getting so mad about other people’s ideas, decisions, and ways of seeing things.

This dress conversation definitely brought the anger out. There was some real name calling, defensiveness, and outrage. And then different camps started up; it was “us vs. them” all about a simple photo of a dress.

And again, this mimicked life. Why, when something divides us, when we see something differently, does this happen? Do we start name calling, get mad, lash out, band against each other, and imply “the other” is stupid, or dumb, or that something is wrong with them? If you think of every situation – no matter how heated – like this dress, things start to click into place.

So, what about this whole debate was actually helpful? Was it the internet rioting, name calling, anger, and outrage? Or was it when some people actually took to explaining what this phenomenon was about, and took the time to sit down and explain it to people, calmly, with facts and science? And was it people claiming that because they saw it that way, clearly therefore it must be true, or was it when people actually started listening to the science and paying attention (because this was clearly the most important thing that has ever happened in internet history…) and learned what was happening and acknowledged that okay perhaps it WAS possible that another human being actually has a different sensory response to the same image? That the same image could produce two very different experiences in two different people?

Yeah, it was definitely the second one in both of those cases. So what happened here, in a nutshell is:

  1. People experienced this photograph one of two ways – then immediately believed this was the only “truth.”
  2. People learned that others saw it differently and immediately discounted them as being weird or wrong.
  3. People fought and the internet was ruined for a whole weekend.
  4. Other people came forward with some explanations of what was happening.
  5. People watched and listened to those explanations and eventually calmed down.
  6. People accepted that just because they didn’t experience something in a certain way, doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t experience it that way.
  7. People agreed to disagree, understanding that (if I learned this correctly) that at the end of the day, the dress in the photo is actually blue and black, even if your eyes aren’t seeing it that way (as mine aren’t).

So, as I am sure we can all extrapolate this out to many various arguments – such as the new Ontario sex-ed curriculum, anti-vaxxers, and gay rights, to name a few – I think that it can be made pretty clear that we should just jump ahead from the fighting bit to the listening to facts and science and logic bit – and agree that even if you don’t see something that way, that each of us would agree that, at the end of the day, our own perception of something doesn't change the way that it IS.  Facts, stats, and logic are out there. And when our brains can’t see something in a certain way, even after being presented with the facts and logic, perhaps we need to accept that we may never see it, but trust and believe in the process that the truth is out there.

I will never see that damn dress as blue and black. I just won’t. But if that’s the way it really is, I will trust that. Because science and logic.

And the real point of this article – as it always is – is about mental health. Many people in society get stuck on trying to really understand mental illness through their own experiences, which is a nice thought. But the problem here is, if you do not have a mental illness, there is a very real chance that your brain simply does not have the capacity to understand what it would really be like to live with one of these disorders. I think that sometimes we like to think that we can relate to just about anything – so then we decide to relate depression to the most sad we have ever been, and we relate anxiety to the most stressed we have ever been. But if we don’t have a brain that is suffering from anxiety or depression, it literally can’t imagine that kind of reality that comes with clinical depression or anxiety (or other mental illnesses). Your brain will just not have the physical capability of understanding what that must be like, just like your eyes may have only see that dress as white and gold. No matter how you may try, your brain can’t actually see the image as blue and black – nor may your brain understand what a disorder is like that you have never actually felt.

Then we risk falling into the trap of thinking that what we have experienced is what everyone else has experienced. We think about depression, we imagine the saddest we have ever been, and we tell a person, “Well, that sucks but it can’t be THAT bad. This is what I did when I was sad, you should try that.” But it is very different.  Depression and anxiety aren’t just like being sad or being stressed. And just because you have never experienced it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just like the dress.

So when the temptation comes to suggest to someone living with a mental illness that “It can’t be that bad” or, “You just need to try harder, that worked for me,” or that someone who dies by suicide is “selfish” and “takes the easy way out” let’s stop and remember the dress. Let’s remember that just because our brains don’t see things in a certain way doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Just like the dress may look one way or another to you – your own experiences do not dictate what another person’s experience is. And just because you have never felt it or have never seen it, that doesn’t mean it that it doesn’t exist. So when we talk about mental health and mental illness, try to imagine that dress picture – the way you DON’T see it. The way your brain can’t see on its own, and then validate that someone else experiences it a different way. And that it is real for them. Each person’s experience on this planet is a little bit different. Remember the two sides of the dress. It tells a story deeper than it may seem at first glance.