Neuroscience Research Shows How Mood Impacts Perception

When you’re happy, you see differently, according to new neuroscience research.

Posted Nov 15, 2016

When you’re in a good mood, the world seems to be a better place in general. Even though you may get a tear in your pants leg, spill your coffee all over the kitchen table, or have to deal with a noisy neighbor, when you’re happy these minor daily problems don’t really bother you. Conversely, when you’re feeling dejected or disappointed after some type of loss of breakup, each of life’s minor annoyances only adds to your pain. You find it difficult to look beyond what’s right in front of you and may even find yourself staring at the computer screen, watching the blinking cursor. New research shows how happiness isn’t just an emotional experience, but an emotion that can shape the way you perceive the world.

According to Ghent University’s Naomi Vanlessen and colleagues (2016), what’s called the “broaden and build” theory proposed by University of North Carolina’s Barbara Frederickson (2001) predicts that when you’re happy, your attention zooms out, “paying attention to the globality of concepts, situations, or objects” (p. 819). When you’ve just received good news, for example, you’ll be able to look at things around you in a positive light but, more importantly, you’ll also be able to think more creatively. New ideas might pop into your head as you reconsider how to approach a familiar task. At the same time, not willing to let that good feeling go, you’ll stay away from stimuli (people, experiences, events) that would threaten your positive mood.

This description may fit well with your own recall of the last time you felt on top of the world and how being happy influenced the way you looked at that world. However, beyond describing what you already knew, how can neuroscience help you understand why being happy can affect your attentional focus? After collecting just over 1,000 published articles on mood and attention, the Belgian team narrowed the search down to 21 that met the strict criteria the authors adhered to in judging studies to be sufficiently rigorous to include in their review.

This intense scrutiny of previous findings led Vanlessen and her colleagues to conclude that happiness doesn’t always lead to you to look broadly outward in your attentional focus. In some studies, happiness led instead to a more generally diffuse style of processing information. Thus, when you’re in a good mood, you may be able to take in a wider array of stimuli, but it’s also possible that you just become less analytical in the way you approach what’s going on around you. You may become better able to think imaginatively, in other words, or you may simply be less able to think analytically. People with a diffuse cognitive style think everything’s great (or everything’s awful) without being able to come up with a reason for forming their judgments.

The alternative approach, as suggested by the Ghent team, is to regard a positive mood as affecting the way you alter and take charge over your own thought processes, what’s known as “cognitive control.” A positive mood may lead you to open your mind and your eyes to what’s going on around you; that is, to pay more attention to external stimuli, if you’re not preoccupied with a mentally challenging task. Under more taxing conditions, though (think subtracting 7 from each number, starting with 100, while performing another mental task at the time), your attentional focus will turn inward as you continue to work on the problem. People who are put into a negative frame of mind will tend, regardless of the circumstances, to focus their attention inward. This places them at a disadvantage when they would benefit by looking outwardly. Thus, when you’re in a bad mood, you’ll fail to notice how beautiful the full moon is because you’ll be so preoccupied with your own negative thoughts and feelings.

The neuroscience behind all of this involves the parts of the brain involved in connecting the cortex (the site of higher-order cognition) with the limbic system (the site involving basic emotions).  Moods, according to this model, have a direct connection with perception and thought.  Your mood will lead you to recruit the areas of your cortex needed to deal with a particular problem. If your mood is positive, you’ll be able to choose which parts of the brain to recruit – internal vs. external. If your mood is negative, you’ll essentially bypass the external for the internal.

To sum up, this impressive review of the literature provides a way to understand how your mood affects your processing of information from the world outside you, and the world inside your mind. Selective attention, or your choice of what to perceive, seems to be affected by whether you’re happy or sad.  In some cases, you’re better off being open to the events going on around you, but in others, you’ll need to shore up your own mental resources to deal with the task at hand. Having that flexibility seems to be the key, or as the authors state, this is consistent with the notion that: “positive mood changes selective attention processes, a mechanism proposed to mediate widespread beneficial effects on mental and physical wellbeing and health” (p. 832). You can’t always change your mood, but if you allow yourself to focus on the positive instead of the negative, you may find that your actual view of the world becomes that much brighter.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016

References:

Fredrickson, B., 2001. The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56 (3), 218–226, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.56.3.218

Vanlessen, N., De Raedt, R., Koster, E. W., & Pourtois, G. (2016). Happy heart, smiling eyes: A systematic review of positive mood effects on broadening of visuospatial attention. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 68816-837. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.07.001