Feeling blue? Feeling sad changes our perception of colour

The link between colour and emotion is well known.

The link between colour and emotion is well known.

We're smart, instinctive little cookies underneath it all.

Gut instinct is more than a metaphor, with new research showing that our guts play an important role in our emotions.

Intuitive metaphors like feeling "blue" or finding the world "grey" when we are depressed also have their roots in reality, two new studies suggest.

The researchers from the University of Rochester found that how we feel influences our perception of colour.

"Our results show that mood and emotion can affect how we see the world around us," lead author psychology researcher Christopher Thorstenson​ said. "Our work advances the study of perception by showing that sadness specifically impairs basic visual processes that are involved in perceiving colour."

The link between colour and emotion is well known.

Dark, muted colours tend to be associated with sadness and disgust, while bright, saturated colours are perceived as happy and clean.

Colours like red and orange are seen as "warm" and comforting, but can also be associated with feelings of anger and hostility.

Colours like blue and purple are seen as "cool" and calming, but can also be associated with sadness or indifference.

Occasionally, if we're down we want to watch a comedy, be surrounded by bright colours or listen to a happy song, but generally, we prefer colours, sounds and visuals that reflect the way we feel.

Why? Researchers suggest this depends on how "deep" the sadness is.

For example, if we have lost a loved one or suffered a serious emotional trauma, lighthearted stimulus, in any form, can be perceived as inappropriate and even "threatening to one's beliefs".

If, on the other hand, we've just had a bad day, a little lightness is likely to lift us back up.

In the new study, the researchers extended on this existing knowledge.

"We thought that maybe a reason these metaphors emerge was because there really was a connection between mood and perceiving colours in a different way," Thorstenson said.

To find out, he conducted two experiments. In the first, 127 participants watched either a very funny or very sad video to set the mood.

They were then shown 48 consecutive, desaturated colour patches and were asked to name whether it was red, yellow, green, or blue.

Those who watched the sad clip were less accurate in identifying the colours, but only with colours that were on the blue-yellow axis.

In the second experiment, 130 participants watched a neutral or sad clip. Again, those who watched the sad video were less able to accurately identify colours on the blue-yellow axis.

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

The researchers hypothesise that it may have to do with a relationship between the neurotransmitter dopamine and the blue-yellow axis, but say more research is required.

"This is new work and we need to take time to determine the robustness and generalisability of this phenomenon before making links to application," he says. 

Colours have been used as therapy in Eastern cultures and have cross-cultural associations with emotion.

Red is the colour of both love and warmth, as well as anger.

Red is the colour of both love and warmth, as well as anger.


Red is used to stimulate the body and mind and to increase circulation in chromotherapy.

Red is the colour of love, warmth, and comfort. Red is also considered an intense, angry, colour associated with excitement.

One study found that seeing the colour red before taking an exam actually had a negative impact on test performance.


Yellow is thought to stimulate the nerves and purify the body.

Yellow is considered to be cheery and warm, but is also associated with frustration and anger. Research has shown that people are more likely to lose their tempers and babies tend to cry more in yellow rooms.

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Orange is used to heal the lungs and to increase energy levels.

Orange calls to mind feelings of excitement, enthusiasm, and warmth.


Blue is associated with soothing illnesses and treating pain.

Blue is is considered to be calming and serene, but is also associated with sadness and aloofness.

Research has shown that people are more productive in blue rooms.


Purple shades are thought to alleviate skin problems.

Purple represents wisdom and spirituality. It does not often occur in nature, it can sometimes appear exotic or artificial.

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 - smh.com.au


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