“Feeling blue” might be more than just a metaphor.
“We were already deeply familiar with how often people use color terms to describe common phenomena, like mood, even when these concepts seem unrelated,” the study’s lead author Christopher Thorstenson said in a statement for the Association for Psychological Science. “We thought that maybe a reason these metaphors emerge was because there really was a connection between mood and perceiving colors in a different way.”
Thorstenson was right. All it took was a clip from a cartoon to make people start seeing differently.
Participants in the study, which took place at the University of Rochester in New York, were invited to watch the two-minute scene from “The Lion King” in which Mufasa is killed. To the mournful strains of Elton John’s score, they watched Simba’s eyes widen and fill with tears as he nuzzled against his fallen father. The clip, which apparently is often used in psychology studies, is scientifically proven to induce irresistible sadness at the plight of the orphaned lion cub.
Others participants were shown a clip from a stand-up comedy routine or a neutral screen saver.
Once they felt sufficiently gloomy, cheerful or completely unmoved, depending on which clip they saw, the participants were put to the test. Each was presented with a series of washed-out color swatches, so de-saturated they were nearly gray, and asked to identify what color they were.
While the amused and neutral groups’ ability to discern colors remained unaffected, the Disney-watching crowd had trouble distinguishing swatches on the blue-yellow axis. (The eye’s color encoding matrix ranks light on two axes — from red to green and from blue to yellow — and then sorts it into what we recognize as color.)
That only blue-yellow perception was affected, and only among the sad group, is significant.
Psychologists believe that perception along the blue-yellow axis is linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine, Thorstenson told the Association for Psychological Science. Dopamine is the chemical signal that transmits information from neuron to neuron, stimulating the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. It’s responsible for the flush of excitement an addict feels at the sight of a drug and the thrill of an explorer ascending a mountain for the first time, and its absence is associated with apathy, lack of motivation and hopelessness.
Thorstenson’s study suggests that sadness affects dopamine’s other tasks — among them, transmitting visual information about blue and yellow light. A similar phenomenon has been found in patients with ADHD, who have low dopamine levels and sometimes struggle to perceive the color blue.
But the study’s findings go beyond color.
They’re a reminder that our experience of the world is not as immediate and objective as we’d like to believe. It’s easy to assume that cognition — what we think and feel — is a rational response to perception, that we intake information from our senses, process it, and then draw conclusions from that data.
But some psychologists believe that our understanding of the world happens “top-down” as much as “bottom-up.” In other words, higher-level cognition can determine what and how we perceive. Rather than seeing the world as it really is, our perceptions are colored — literally — by emotions and expectations.
But this notion is debated — a recent study from Yale argued that many studies purporting to show a “top-down” effect are flawed.
“The possibility of top-down effects on perception is tremendously exciting,” the study’s author’s wrote. “Accordingly, though, the bar for a suitably compelling top-down effect should be high. Until this high bar is met, it will remain eminently plausible that there are no top-down effects of cognition on perception.”
Still, findings like Thorstenson’s pop up a lot, and in his conversation with the Association for Psychological Science he was convinced.
“Our results show that mood and emotion can affect how we see the world around us,” he said.