Seeing red? Feeling blue? Green with envy? These aren’t just sayings. Research shows that our emotional state can actually affect our colour perception. So, depending on what sort of mood you’re in, you could see things that were blue as yellow! But how does this work?
Unhappiness Impairs Colour Perception
Research based on a study of 127 students involved them being randomly assigned an emotionally charged film clip – one happy, one sad. Afterwards, they were shown 48 colour patches and asked to identify them as red, yellow, green, or blue. The research revealed that the students who watched the sad film were less accurate in identifying colours belonging to the yellow-blue spectrum than the students who watched the happy clip.
The research appears in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. “Our results show that mood and emotion can affect how we see the world around us,” said first author Christopher Thorstenson, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester. “Our work advances the study of perception by showing that sadness specifically impairs basic visual processes that are involved in perceiving colour.”
Previous research has shown that the neurotransmitter dopamine—the “feel good” hormone—is specifically linked with colour perception on the blue-yellow axis. Not surprisingly, dopamine has an impact on vision, mood regulation, and some mood disorders. Therefore, it seems reasonable to say that perception and mood are closely linked.
Dopamine has been shown to decrease intraocular pressure and cause dilatation of the pupil, acting indirectly with the adrenergic nerve to cause the pupil to dilate. These two changes in the structure of the eye may well affect the way light bends inside the eyeball, causing confusion of the perception of colour. So, you could argue that in order to see blue, we shouldn’t be feeling blue.
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