Sadness can actually change the way our brain perceives color, according to new research
We often use color to describe our moods, whether we're 'feeling blue,' 'seeing red,' or 'green with envy.' But new research shows these linguistic pairings may be more than just metaphor: Our emotions can actually affect how we perceive colors. (P.S. Find out What Your Eye Color Says About How You Feel Pain.)
In a study published in Psychological Science, 127 undergraduate students were randomly assigned to watch an emotional film clip—either a stand-up comedy routine or ‘a particularly sad scene’ from The Lion King. (Seriously, why are Disney movies so devastating!?) After watching the video, they were then shown 48 consecutive, desaturated color patches—meaning they look more gray, making them somewhat difficult to identify—and asked to indicate whether each patch was red, yellow, green, or blue. Researchers found that when people were made to feel sad, they were less accurate at identifying blue and yellow colors than those led to feel amused or emotionally neutral. (So yes, those who 'felt blue' actually had a harder time seeing blue.) They showed no difference in accuracy for red and green colors.
So why does emotion affect blue and yellow specifically? Human color vision can be basically described as using color axes—red-green, blue-yellow, and black-white—to create all the colors we see, lead study author Christopher Thorstenson says. The researchers note that previous work has specifically linked color perception on the blue-yellow axis with the neurotransmitter dopamine—the 'feel-good brain chemical'—which is involved in vision, mood regulation, and some mood disorders.
Thorstenson also explains that while this was only a 'mild sadness induction' and researchers didn't directly measure how long the effect lasted, "it could be the case that more chronic sadness might have a longer lasting effect." While this is just speculation, past research has shown that depression does indeed influence vision, suggesting the effects found here might extend to people who have depression—something scientists are currently interested in investigating. (FYI: This is Your Brain On: Depression.)
While follow-up studies are needed to apply the findings, for now, knowing that emotion and mood influence how we see the world around us is pretty interesting stuff. No word yet on the accuracy of those mood rings you rocked back in the day.