A University of Toronto study provides the first direct evidence that our mood literally changes the way our visual system filters our perceptual experience – suggesting that seeing the world through rose-colored glasses is more biological reality than metaphor.
“Good and bad moods literally change the way our visual cortex operates and how we see,” says Adam Anderson, professor of psychology. “Specifically, our study shows that when in a positive mood, our visual cortex takes in more information, while negative moods result in tunnel vision.”
This can explain why when your mom asks you to get the salt from the cupboard, on the second shelf behind the pepper, and you don’t want to, you can’t find it no matter how hard you look. Then she comes over and says, “Here it is” and it was in front of you the whole time.
The research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine how our visual cortex processes sensory information when in good, bad, and neutral moods. They found that donning the rose-colored glasses of a good mood is less about the color and more about the expansiveness of the view.
The researchers first showed participants a series images designed to generate a good, bad or neutral mood. The participants were then shown a composite image, featuring a face in the center, surrounded by “place” images, such as a house. To focus their attention on the central image, subjects were asked to identify the gender of the person’s face. When in a bad mood, the subjects did not process the images of places in the surrounding background. However, when viewing the same images in a good mood, they actually took in more information — they saw the central image of the face as well as the surrounding pictures of houses. The discovery came from looking at specific parts of the brain — the parahippocampal “place area” — that are known to process places and how this area relates to primary visual cortical responses, the first part of the cortex related to vision.
“Under positive moods, people may process a greater number of objects in their environment, which sounds like a good thing, but it also can result in distraction,” says Taylor Schmitz, a graduate student of Anderson’s and lead author of the study. “Good moods enhance the literal size of the window through which we see the world. The upside of this is that we can see things from a more global, or integrative perspective. The downside is that this can lead to distraction on critical tasks that require narrow focus, such as operating dangerous machinery or airport screening of passenger baggage. Bad moods, on the other hand, may keep us more narrowly focused, preventing us from integrating information outside of our direct attentional focus.”
So the next time you’re looking for your keys or trying to make an informed decision, do it feeling great. You just might come up with some new possibilities that you wouldn’t think of otherwise.