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“Feeling Blue” Could Lead to Not Seeing Blue Very Well

Last updated Sept. 12, 2015

Approved by: Krish Tangella MD, MBA, FCAP

We were surprised by how specific the effect was, that color was only impaired along the blue-yellow axis. We did not predict this specific finding, although it might give us a clue to the reason for the effect in neurotransmitter functioning.


An investigation recently looked into how human brains perceive color when induced to be sad, neutral, or excited. The research concludes that one’s mood could essentially dictate how colors are perceived.

Emotions have been reported to affect every facet of cognition. It is therefore not surprising that the eyes, which transmit visual cues to the brain, will be involved in the process. Previous research has shown that emotions influence vision. While positive moods were found to increase the encoding of unattended peripheral information, negative moods had the opposite effect. Additionally, a state of depression has been shown to reduce sensitivity to visual contrast in individuals.

The current investigation set out to understand how people in different moods perceive color since contrast involves the process of color perception. To accomplish this, two experiments were conducted the following:

  1. In the first experiment, 127 undergraduate volunteers were divided into two groups randomly. While one group watched a video clip that induced sadness, the other watched a stand-up comedy, meant to elevate their moods. The participants were then asked to identify red, blue, yellow, and green colors in 48 desaturated color patches.
  2. In the second experiment, 130 undergraduate students were divided into two groups randomly. While one group watched the sad video clip, the other watched a neutral screensaver. These participants were also made to identify colors in desaturated color patches.

The observations from both studies show that compared to participants who watched amusing or neutral screens:

  • Those who watched the sad video had difficulties identifying the blue-yellow color axis.
  • No significant differences were reported in the identification of other colors in the group/s that watched the sad movie.

The results imply that sadness is specifically responsible for differential color perception. The researchers ruled out attention or effort as deciding factors, since the perception was only affected in the blue-yellow, and not in the red-green, color axis.

The lead author of the research article, Dr. Thorstenson, says in the news release of the Association for Psychological Science, “We were surprised by how specific the effect was, that color was only impaired along the blue-yellow axis. We did not predict this specific finding, although it might give us a clue to the reason for the effect in neurotransmitter functioning.”

Indeed, the perception of the blue-yellow axis has been linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Individuals suffering from Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) were reported to have difficulties in speed-processing color, specifically the blue-yellow axis. Slower processing has been attributed to subtle impairments in the perception of color, as a consequence of reduced dopamine functioning.

“Our results show that mood and emotion can affect how we see the world around us,” says Dr. Thorstenson. He adds, “Our work advances the study of perception by showing that sadness specifically impairs basic visual processes that are involved in perceiving color.”

Thus, there may be something to “feeling blue” (or not seeing blue very well), literally and medically.

Written by Mangala Sarkar, Ph.D.

Primary References

Thorstenson, C., Pazda, A., & Elliot, A. (2015). Sadness Impairs Color Perception. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797615597672

Feeling Blue and Seeing Blue: Sadness May Impair Color Perception. (n.d.). Retrieved September 9, 2015, from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/feeling-blue-and-seeing-blue-sadness-may-impair-color-perception.html

DoveMed Resources

Major Depression. (n.d.). Retrieved September 10, 2015, from http://www.dovemed.com/diseases-conditions/major-depression/ 

Additional References

Schmitz, T., De Rosa, E., & Anderson, A. (2009). Opposing Influences of Affective State Valence on Visual Cortical Encoding. The Journal Of Neuroscience, 29(22), 7199-7207.

Fam, J., Rush, A., Haaland, B., Barbier, S., & Luu, C. (2013). Visual contrast sensitivity in major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 75(1), 83-86.

Tannock, R., Banaschewski, T., & Gold, D. (2006). Color naming deficits and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A retinal dopaminergic hypothesis. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 2, 4. http://doi.org/10.1186/1744-9081-2-4

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Sept. 12, 2015
Last updated: Sept. 12, 2015