Dec. 19, 2006 -- Seeing the world "through rose-colored glasses" may not just be a metaphor anymore. Increasing evidence suggests that our mood literally affects the way we visually process information.
According to a new study published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a happy mood may "free our mind" and increase our creative thinking abilities. However, being in a good mood may also make us more distracted.
"Having a positive mood affects your attention -- it can broaden your visual field, literally," said Dr. Adam Anderson, assistant professor of psychology at University of Toronto and senior author of the study.
In the study, volunteers were asked to solve two types of problems -- a creative problem requiring word associations or a visual problem that required ignoring distracting information. To experience a particular mood, volunteers listened to either happy or sad music, and they were asked to think about happy or sad things.
When in a happy mood, volunteers were able to perform well on creative problem-solving tasks. However, happy volunteers tended to be more distracted, thereby performing poorly on visual tasks with distracting information.
"If you are doing something that requires you be creative or be in a think tank, you want to be in a place with good mood," said Anderson. "For example, if you are having difficulty solving a problem, a typical reaction is to get angry. But that can actually make it harder to solve the problem. One prescription is to go out and play to get yourself in a good mood, and then come back to the problem."
Experts say that a part of the brain called the amygdala could have a big effect on creativity.
"The amygdala triggers fear, and fear can shut down the part of the brain that makes you creative," said Dr. Robert Maurer, a staff psychologist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. "When you are happy, the amygdala is quiet so that you can be more creative."
However, have you ever been so ecstatic that you cannot sit down and focus on paying bills or proofreading your child's homework? There might be a scientific basis to your distraction.
Researchers say that being in a happy mood can impair our capacity to focus on the task in front of us, especially if we are engaged in tasks that involve proofreading a paper or calculating numbers.
"A positive mood may be bad for certain things," said Anderson. "For example, as you are driving on the highway, you are supposed to be paying attention to what is in front of you. If you are in a really good mood, you might be also visually taking in the billboards and other things on the sides of the highway. Sometimes, that is not so good."
"People who are in a very good mood may just notice a lot, they are attentive to their environment, so they may be more attentive to the distracters as well," said Dr. Dan McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Chicago.
The 'Weapon Focus' of Negative Moods
Whereas positive emotions tend to spur creativity, negative moods can help people focus, experts say.
"A negative mood results in tunnel vision, making you focus on just the things you are anxious about -- everything else falls out of this focus and doesn't matter," said Anderson.
In modern psychology, the term "weapon focus" refers to the laser-sharp concentration of someone who is experiencing negative emotions. The term comes from observations that, when held at gunpoint under extreme anxiety, people tend to focus intensely on the weapon itself but are unable to recall the face behind the weapon.
"If you are doing some form of task that requires focus, many details or calculation, strangely, it might be better to be in a negative mood because the negative mood can filter out everything else," said Anderson. "For example, an accountant often needs to come up with one right answer. You don't want the accountant to be distracted by other things. So, having a cranky accountant might be okay."
"What is good for mental health is the ability to be flexible, and not to be stuck in one mood state," said Dr. David Spiegel, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavior sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif. "Look at children. They're very creative, and they are also able to switch between moods quickly. You can teach people to change their moods and that may be of benefit to them."
Would You Like a Room with a Porthole or a Panoramic View?
Some compare human attention to the beam of a spotlight.
"Under negative emotions, the spotlight becomes very narrow and focuses in on very few things," said Anderson. "Those few things are seen well, but everything else is dark. A positive light opens up that beam."
Some say a positive outlook can broaden your mind.
"More research is showing that positive emotions of all kinds tend to broaden your perspective and your personality," said McAdams.
It appears that different moods are valuable for different tasks. While a positive mood is helpful for performing creative tasks, it could hinder tasks that require focused attention.
"Under a negative mood, we see the world through a porthole," said Anderson. "But under a positive mood, we see the world through a big window, with a panoramic view."