Genetics And That Striped Dress

Yeah, it’s that damn dress again. If you haven’t been online recently you might have missed it, otherwise you know exactly which striped dress we’re talking about. You know, the one that

You know, the one that melted the Internet. So why are we bringing this whole thing up again? It turns out that what colors you see in those stripes has a lot to do with how old you are and where you grew up, according to new research done by scientists here at 23andMe.

The huge amount of interest in this weird debate offered researchers at 23andMe a chance for an instant genetics experiment. A lot of people looked at that dress, but some people see white and gold, while others see blue and black.

Why is that? Do our genes play an obvious role in the difference of how we perceive color?

That’s what we wanted to know.

SathirapongsasutiF b:w

23andMe computational biologists Fah Sathirapongsasuti, PhD

Buzzfeed and Wired both wrote about how our brains interpret light based on visual signals. The differences we see may be how our brains filter out different parts of the color spectrum. Alternatively, the differing density of our rod and cone cells or the cornea color could make some people see the world a bit more yellow or blue. The question is whether there is a clear biological reason for the difference.

The short answer is that 23andMe researchers didn’t find any obvious genetic association for that difference. We’ll get to some of what we found a little later. First off it’s important to note that 23andMe regularly surveys customers asking them a slew of questions about their health, their traits and even seemingly odd queries about whether they can curl their tongues or do a somersault. When we combine all this information with their genetic information it feeds into a novel research platform that allows our scientists to learn more about the genetic influence on disease, traits and human behavior.

So a few days ago we asked some of our customers who have consented to research about what colors they saw when they looked at that dress. About 25,000 people responded, and this is some of what our researchers learned.

For one, there was no clear genetic association with seeing either a blue and black dress versus seeing a white and gold one, according to Fah Sathirapongsasuti, PhD, a computational biologist here at 23andMe. That doesn’t mean there is no association, it just means that we didn’t find one that met our threshold for a strong association.

We did see a small effect size for a genetic variant in the gene ANO6. While this may or may not be significant, it’s interesting because ANO6 is in the anoctamins gene family, which includes the gene ANO2. The gene ANO2 is involved in light perception, so this might be something that warrants further study. But as we said, the association we saw did not show a big effect. Others who’ve looked at the possible genetic influence of how people perceive the color of the dress also did not find a strong genetic association, finding, for instance, that identical twins also reported seeing different colors.

While we first looked at genetic associations with different color perceptions, we went on to see if there were other associations related to different phenotypes. The strongest association we found was with age. Our researchers found that the effect of age comes in two phases – for people up to 60 years old and for those who are over 60. According to our data the proportion of those who see white and gold increased up until the age of 60, but after 60 the proportion of those who see white and gold starts to decrease.Age Effect We don’t know why that might be, according to Fah. Retinal cells responsible for color perception become less sensitive as we age, which could account for some of what our data show, but it doesn’t explain the different trends, he said.

According to 23andMe’s data at around 20 years of age, customers were split evenly between those who saw a white and gold dress versus those who saw blue and black. But as customers get older the proportion of those who see white and gold increased up until the age of 60 when more than three quarters of those surveyed said they see a white and gold striped dress instead of blue and black one.

This effect is more dramatic in men where the proportion of men seeing white and gold increases by almost 15% around the age of 40. Then, according to our data, after 60 years of age, the percentage of those who see a white and gold dress decreases at a steady rate. People over the age of 70 is the only group that see more blue and black than white and gold. Women, who were between the ages of 20 and 50,   were also slightly more likely to see white and gold. Our researchers also looked at whether other eye conditions – age related macular degeneration, cataracts and red-green color blindness – clearly influenced how color was perceived. Customers with cataracts were about 50 percent more likely to see black and blue instead of white and gold. Those who are color-blind were more likely to see white and gold, and there was not a strong effect with macular degeneration.Childhood Residence

The power of 23andMe research platform is that it allows scientists to look across all phenotypes and genotypes we record to find even unexpected associations. For instance, dress color perception appears to be influenced by the type of place you lived in as a child. Fah found that those who grew up in more urban areas saw white and gold at higher proportions than those who grew up in more rural areas.

While results like these are interesting and could fuel multiple follow-on inquiries, this little experiment with the dress is interesting in another way. It’s instructive because it illustrates the complex interaction between both our genetics and environment.

  • Tim Jackson

    I see blue and gold stripes on the dress, does anyone else see that color pattern?

    • I do. I thought I was the only one in the world who did!

  • Karen

    It seems this should spark a discussion of the colors we see when we
    view anything. This one time someone asked – and this sparked the
    realization that we are not all ‘seeing’ the same colors – that our
    experience is different. Whether it’s cataracts as suggested in this
    article or the number of blue cones in our eyes suggested in another
    article, we see colors differently.

    Which, if you are interested
    in how we perceive colors, then 23andme should do some more independent
    tests which involve color. Why leave it at just this one dress? Do we
    see different colors different? Is it more likely with stripes or pairs
    of colors (polka dots, for example)?

    It seems it should be a
    combination of genetics, condition of the eyes (age or health related)
    and the foods we eat that affect how our eyes function. Do we really
    just leave it as: “That was an interesting dress we saw?” How about it
    23andme? Can you do some more research? I’ve always wondered if your
    research showed purely genetics or was influenced by health and eating
    habits. I know from experience that ‘restless leg syndrome’ is affected
    by the magnesium we consume.

  • Corrado Monti

    A possible explanation for the rural-areas correlation is the amount of time spent in artificial illumination; one may guess that rural areas inhabitants are more used to seeing things in the sunlight, while urban areas may be slightly more used to seeing things at night, illuminated with artificial lights.

  • 23blog

    Yes, a small percentage of those survey said that the colors they saw switched back and forth between white and gold and blue and black.

  • 23blog

    C Wilson,
    A small percentage of those surveyed say the colors they saw switched from blue/black to white and gold.

  • 23blog

    Blue and black.

  • 23blog

    Hi Daniel,
    That’s a very good point. We did ask a question related to whether people saw this before and whether their answers changed after learning the true color of the dress. We were interested in seeing if social influences may have changed any answers.

  • 23blog

    We did not correlate to time of day.

  • Cameo

    As an eye doctor, I’m curious to know if the people who stated they have/had cataracts have had them removed. The 60’s is a common time to develop cataracts that are “visually significant” and can be removed. Once cataracts are removed their color perception changes dramatically. Cataracts tend to put a yellowish cast on everything. But, once removed color perception returns to what was “intended”. Cataract removal can happen anywhere from the 50’s to the 70’s depending on the person. Most all people in their 70’s have had cataracts removed or have cataracts.

  • That’s what I see.

  • on the left I see light blue and gold or brown… on the right I see blue and black and brown.

    • jammy

      I think this dress reveals two other things about people. First, left the fold, took care to really see the colors; possibly three in one and decidedly three in the other, while probably most of us dont bother to see more than two. Second, while many expressed wonder at others not seeing what they saw, others wondered why they didn’t see what others saw. Can this dress also tell us, through DNA, why some of us have more patience and higher or lower self esteem?

      • Poetech

        I’m replying to this 4 months late, but just saw your comment.

        I think that is a wonderful point you bring up. Some people were MAD at me for saying blue/black… Mad at me saying what the colors ACTUALLY ARE! The friend who brought this internet phenomenon to me was convinced I was wrong. Same with me… I argued with everyone, because I had the official website SAYING it is blue and black. I had the best evidence anyone could have! So why did I begin to doubt?

        Did it matter- that I showed them links with the manufacturer’s official colors? No, not one bit.

        In the matter of individual self esteem, I typically have zero. When people fought back, if they refused my “evidence” from the website, I could not stand to argue another moment. This was one of those times in my life, through bipolar and depressive thoughts, where ‘I’ felt ‘THEY’ had the burden of proof.

        Twelve hours later, I’m googling reasons why I might be wrong.

        Simply astonishing.

    • James T

      Sort your eyes out

  • William McBrayer

    On the right, the gold lace is darker, and the white has a bluish hue. There is no black and blue.

  • gv1

    I see all 3 combos, white/gold, dark blue/black, and sky blue/gold.

    I can see white/gold, and 10 minutes later I can go back and the image is dark blue/black, and later it’ll be sky blue/gold.
    Strange how I see all 3 combos within a short time, same room, same screen, same viewing angle, same light.

  • Michael F

    I also see just blue and gold (or brown) and never black or white. It’s strange that these colors are not mentioned together in the article.

  • Interesting results. I’ve been collecting the data on #thedress colors with color matching procedure (you can take part in the study here: and so far the gender and age related differences are not significant. But I only have about 1400 participants so far and most of them are under 30. So this is probably more of a sample limitation. Is it possible to look at the whole data that you’ve got? Without genetic data, just the demographics stuff? Do you have any plans on publishing it out in the open?

    • 23blog

      We will likely make a “white paper” available regarding the study and results. That will be ready sometime in the next week.

  • Bill Johnston

    This who;e discussion raises sincere concerns regarding EyeWitness testimony in a court of law. if our preceptions are subject to so much subject reality then how can we rely on what we see to be a reliable source of information. I know what I see and can tell you but what i see and what you see can clearly be significantly different. I see white and Gold By the way

  • JosieCat

    I see white and gold, BUT the white is the kind of white that has a decided bluish cast.

  • Louise

    I see the dress as blue and brown. My husband sees it white and gold sometimes and blue and brown at others but never black. Is this a computer issue?

    • James T

      it because you’re old

  • Robert ANderson

    I see a dull gold and a white with a blueish tinge.

  • Robert ANderson

    Go Bears! (UC Berkeley)

  • Abig Txun

    Blue & gold here.

  • sarah

    Why do some see blue and gold ?

  • lynn

    i see blue & gold or a brownish gold. just watching ellen now & it looks like the whole show’s about that stupid dress. the owners left their honeymoon to go on ellen & talk about it. the woman’s mother is sitting in the actual – blue & black – dress next to a picture of it & they are still saying it’s white & gold. it does seem a lot of people see blue & gold or brown – yet that seems to be officially ignored – except for those of us who see it that way.

  • Ronald C Delaware

    I am with Keith L. I see Blue and Gold

  • Lee from Aus

    Left – Gold and white : Right – Blue and black
    And I see nothing out of the ordinary here, been using colour pallets for 20 years :/

    The image on the right looks manipulated via an editor as does the original content that this article is based on, so i must ask if this is some sort of joke?

    PS. And yes, your monitor is 100% responsible for what you see here. I’m viewing it on a ASUS ROG Swift @ 2560×1440, 144Hz.

  • Lauren King

    I think you might be on to something. My eyes are hazel. Inside they usually look brown, but in the sun they look light gold with green. I have seen both sets of colors in this dress at different times, and I think it has to do with the lighting in the room I’m in when I look at the picture.