50 shades of blue: Scientists say sadness affects color perception

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'Feeling blue' or 'seeing things through rose-tinted glasses' may not just be melodramatic statements. New research suggests that emotions can actually influence the way we see color.

Feeling sadness may affect the way we perceive color the results of two recent studies have proved.

In one study, the researchers had 127 undergraduate participants watch an emotional film clip and then complete a visual judgment task. The participants were asked to watch an animated film clip designed to induce sadness, or a standup comedy clip meant to elicit fun and amusement. After watching the video clip, the participants were shown 48 consecutive, desaturated color patches and were asked to indicate whether each patch was red, yellow, green or blue.

It turned out that participants who were made to feel sad were less accurate in identifying colors on the blue-yellow axis than those who were caused to be amused or emotionally neutral.

"Our results show that mood and emotion can affect how we see the world around us," the study’s lead author Christopher Thorstenson said in a statement for the Association for Psychological Science. 

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"Our work advances the study of perception by showing that sadness specifically impairs basic visual processes that are involved in perceiving color," he added.

A second study, in which 130 undergrad participants took part, has showed the same effect. Participants who watched a sad clip were later less accurate in identifying colors on the blue-yellow spectrum than those who watched a neutral screensaver. The findings therefore suggest that sadness is specifically to blame for the differences in color perception.

Researchers insist that the studies' results cannot be explained by the mere differences in participants' attention or level of engagement with the task, because color perception proved to be only impaired on the blue-yellow axis.

"We were surprised by how specific the effect was, that color was only impaired along the blue-yellow axis," Thorstenson said. "We did not predict this specific finding, although it might give us a clue to the reason for the effect in neurotransmitter functioning."

Previous studies have shown that emotion can influence various visual processes. But since contrast sensitivity is a basic visual process involved in color perception, Thorstenson along with co-authors Adam Pazda and Andrew Elliot asked themselves whether there is a specific link between the blues and our ability to perceive color. The challenge was to find out why people tend to use color terms to describe their mood.

"We thought that maybe a reason these metaphors emerge was because there really was a connection between mood and perceiving colors in a different way," Thorstenson said.

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According to researchers, perception along the blue-yellow axis is linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine, the chemical that regulates the flow of information through the brain and allows us to experience the feeling of pleasure. Dopamine is the key contributor to motivation and its deficiency leads to depression, fatigue and apathy.

Thorstenson points out that this research maps out new horizons. Follow-up studies are fundamental to fully understanding the relationship between emotion and color perception.

"This is new work and we need to take time to determine the robustness and generalizability of this phenomenon before making links to application," he concluded.

The research is published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science.