SCIENCE
09/05/2015 07:30 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2017

Depression Might Literally Color The Way We See The World (UPDATE)

It's possible that feeling sad can make the world appear more gray.
Researchers have found that depression may affect the visual perception of color.
Credit: Mike Powell/Getty Images
Researchers have found that depression may affect the visual perception of color.

UPDATE: The authors of the study covered in this article voluntarily retracted their study from Psychological Science in November 2015 after noticing errors in their methodology. They told the journal they “remain confident in the proposition that sadness impairs color perception” but would conduct revised experiments to “acquire clearer evidence” supporting their conclusion.

Previously:

Our moods can, quite literally, color our world ― particularly in the case of depression. 

New research published last week 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.

As it turns out, there’s a reason we use colors as a metaphor for emotion, with expressions like “feeling blue” or having a “gray day.”

“It was interesting that we have so many metaphors that link emotion and color perception,” Christopher Thorstenson, a psychology researcher at the University of Rochester and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. “We were curious whether there really was a link between sadness and how people see color.”

To answer this question, the researchers asked 127 undergraduates to watch either a sad or funny video. 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. Those who had watched the sad clip were less accurate in identifying colors than the students who watched the funny clip, suggesting that they were perceiving less of the color. 

The findings build on previous research that investigated the link between mood and perception. Other studies found 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.”

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