Fact or Myth: Can Sadness Change the Way We See Color?

According to a new study…YES!

Turns out there is some truth to sayings such as “feeling blue” and “seeing red.” University of Rochester researchers explored how emotions such as sadness change the way we see color. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science August 25, 2015, confirms a direct link between how we feel and how we see color. The world may just show up a lot more gray when you’re sad.

depression and strokeEmotions Color Your World

The relationship between your emotions and your “low-level visual processes” has been firmly established. Your emotions have a direct impact on your simple perceptions of space and form. This is because visual processes depend on a certain degree of chemical input from the brain, and this input can influence how you see color.

Scientists have long known that sadness lowers arousal, and when arousal declines, so does the amount of light that enters your retina, which in turn clouds your sight. Feeling down also reduces levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps pass signals between nerve cells in the brain. Lower levels of dopamine may hinder neurotransmitters in the retina. Prolonged sadness has also been tied to an impaired ability to see differences in color, which makes for a far less bright and vivid world for those with depression.

Feeling Blue and Seeing Blue

Researchers separated people into two groups: a “sadness” group and an “amusement” group. Those in the sadness group watched a sad film clip, while those in the amusement group watched a standup comedy sketch. Participants were then tasked with determining the color of desaturated red, yellow, green, and blue color patches that had been muted to gray. They also completed an emotional evaluation.

Test results showed that people who were sad had difficulty figuring out colors along the blue-yellow color spectrum, but could accurately make out shades on the red-green axis. Researchers theorize that this may be indicative of the evolutionary tendency to see red as an anger response. Researchers also conclude that if sadness had merely impacted arousal then color perception would have been impaired across all spectrums, not just the blue-yellow. The results also stress the important role dopamine has when it comes to influencing our visual processes.

So if you’re feeling sad and the world looks a little blue, then maybe there’s a biological reason for it? And certainly a strong impetus to try to turn those blues around!