Pink or teal? Local ophthalmologist explains color controversy

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It’s a question that has divided friends and caused arguments among family members- what color are these sneakers?

The photo of the sneakers first popped up on social media in 2017, and had people scratching their heads over whether they are teal with gray accents or pink with white accents. 

The picture popped back into social media and popular culture this month, although the Vans are in fact pink and white. 

But Twitter still seems to see the shoes as teal and gray. 

Why do some people see the shoes as one color, and others as a completely different color?

There are several factors at play, ophthalmologist Dr. David Montesanti with Eye Care and Vision Associates of Buffalo said, but it mostly comes down to how we see color. 

Humans have cones and rods in their retinas, which allow them to absorb and process light. 

Humans (who aren’t colorblind) have three distinct types of cones, which each absorb light at a different wavelength. 

The light comes into the eye, stimulates the cone receptors, and triggers a response in the brain where it’s interpreted as color, Dr. Montesanti said. 

The three types of cones are red, blue, and yellow-green, and the amount of each that are in the retina can vary from person to person. You might even have different distributions of cones in your left and right eyes. 

“In my eye, I might have slightly more red receptors than you,” Dr. Montesanti explained. “It’s possible that you can see the sneaker as teal and gray with one eyeball and pink and white with the other.” 

The sneaker- and its fellow viral color sensation, “The Dress”– are optical illusions, Dr. Montesanti said. 

The human eye has evolved to see things coming at us that are a different color than their surroundings, even if the difference is subtle, he said. 

“If we see an animal coming at us, we might not see it, but our brain can subtract that surrounding and let us see the thing coming at us,” Dr. Montesanti said. “If you have an image with a background and the same image with a different background, the images might look slightly different to us. 

The image of the sneaker may even look different to the same person at different times of the day- due to light, position, and processing in the brain, he said. 

There’s no doubt, the image causes controversy. 

“It exhibits such an argumentative response- it’s bizarre!” Dr. Montesanti laughed. 

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