Being sad can, quite literally, change the way we see the world around us.
New research published in the journal Psychological Science finds that sadness can affect our vision, making the world appear more gray, by impairing the neural processes involved in color perception.
“Color is such an important part of our experience,” lead author Christopher Thorstenson, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, told Time magazine. There’s a reason, he says, that we use colors as a metaphor for emotion, with expressions like “feeling blue” or having a “gray day.”
In two experiments, Thorstenson’s team randomly assigned 129 undergraduates to two groups and showed them emotion-inducing color video clips — either an amusing one of a comedian or a sad one where a Lion King cub watches his father fall off a cliff and sobs next to his corpse. Then, the students viewed 48 color swatches — which were desaturated to the point of being almost gray — and tried to identify them as red, yellow, green or blue, and filled out a questionnaire rating their emotions. The second part of the study had people watch a neutral desktop screensaver and perform the same tasks.
The results showed that those who had watched the sad clip were less accurate in identifying colors than the students who watched the funny clip, but only for colors on the blue-yellow axis. They did not have trouble, however, seeing colors in the red-green spectrum.
So what was going on? It may be that sadness impairs the ability to perceive colors because it interferes with low-level contrast sensitivity, Thorstenson says, which can in turn affect higher order color judgment.
Contrast sensitivity is your visual system’s ability to distinguish between different levels of light and color. Sadness could impair the eye’s ability to detect contrast in a few ways: by decreasing the brain’s arousal or responsiveness ability, which leads the pupils to contract, reducing the amount of light that enters the retina.
The findings build on previous research showing that mood and emotion can influence how we perceive the world around us. Other studies show that when people have a goal to reach or an object to attain — such as the finish line of a race — they may perceive that object to be larger than it really is. People experiencing fear, on the other hand, may perceive certain things in their environment — such as faces with negative expressions — as more threatening than they actually are.
This is because our emotions carry information about the value of objects, and that information is incorporated into the visual perception of our environment. The brain’s emotional and perceptual systems don’t seem to be completely distinct from one another, as was previously believed, but instead engage in a dynamic interplay.
“Psychologists have tacitly viewed perception, cognition, emotion, and other basic processes as separable phenomena to be studied in isolation,” psychologists Jonathan Zadra and Gerald Clore wrote in a 2011 review of studies on emotion and perception. “Increasingly, however, we are coming to see relevant areas of the brain and the processes they support as highly interactive.”