Can optimism aid your vision?

Behind the Headlines

Friday June 5 2009

A “positive outlook improves your vision”, according to The Daily Telegraph. Apparently, research has shown that people with a “sunny outlook” take in more visual information, proving that a “positive attitude really can improve performance”.

The study in question took sixteen healthy volunteers with normal vision and used MRI scans to see what was happening in the visual regions of the brain. The subjects were initially presented with a series of images to alter their mood, and were then shown composite images of faces and locations. Although the volunteers were told to focus on just the faces shown in the images, those in good moods also showed activity in the areas of the brain that deal with locations. The researchers say this shows that a good mood helped the volunteers to see more in their peripheral vision, while those who were less happy focussed on the centre of their field of view.

This study illustrates the ability of scanning studies to pick up variations in brain signalling based on emotions. While this is certainly interesting work, the significance of the findings in real life is not yet clear.


Where did the story come from?

Dr Taylor W Schmitz and colleagues from the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto in Canada carried out this research. The study was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the National Science and Engineering Research Council. The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Neuroscience.

What kind of scientific study was this?

This was a cross-sectional study that examined the relationship between volunteers’ mood, visual perception and brain activity. Based on their previous research, the authors of this study wanted to test whether mood, known as “affective valence”, influenced visual field of view (FOV). Specifically, they had a theory that FOV would broaden during positive mood states and narrow during negative states.

Nine women and seven men, with an average age of 22, were recruited for the study. All were considered healthy with normal vision. The volunteers were given functional MRI scans (fMRI) of the brain. Two participants were removed from subsequent fMRI analyses, one due to a problem with a scanner malfunction and the other due to previously unnoticed atypical vision.

The volunteers were shown a set of images designed to generate a good, bad or neutral mood. They were then shown blocks of images, each featuring a male or female face in front of an image of a house, and were scanned to examine how their brain responded. They were asked to identify the gender of the face and to keep focused on the face component of the images.

Researchers measured several aspects of behaviour during and after the fMRI scans by “self-reported measures of valence”, in other words by asking the volunteers how they felt. The field of view test relied on the participants’ identification of the gender of the face they were shown and recognition of the exterior details of the house placed behind the facial image.

The fMRI images were analysed to compare the activity seen in the brains of those initially shown the happy, neutral and sad mood pictures. The researchers particularly focussed on activity in the parahippocampal region in the brain, which processes the recognition of places.


What were the results of the study?

The researchers found that when a bad mood was induced in the volunteers, they were able to identify the face in the image, but were unable to recall details of the “place” shown in the surrounding area of the photo. In contrast, when participants had been primed to adopt a more positive mood, they processed the whole scene, taking in details of both the face and the place.


What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers say that these findings collectively suggest that “affective valence [mood] differentially biases gating of early visual inputs”, meaning that a person’s mood alters the way they process visual information. The researchers also say they have identified parts of the brain where this is likely to be occurring.


What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

Learning how the mind processes information and what effect mood has on perception may be an important step towards understanding the complicated workings of the brain. How the mind gathers and responds to the information sent by the senses is still largely unresearched, but the use of fMRI scanning technology creates new possibilities for research in the field. It is worth noting:

  • In common with other early research, it is not yet possible to say what the importance or significance of this finding might be in real-life situations.
  • The possible downsides of having a wide field of view, such as being easily distracted, were not investigated by this study.

While this is interesting research, it is important that any conclusions drawn from this work are backed up with further studies that expand on the real-life consequences of these findings.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Positive outlook improves your vision, claim scientists. Daily Telegraph, June 5 2009

Links to the science

Schmitz TW , De Rosa E and Anderson;  Opposing Influences of Affective State Valence on Visual Cortical Encoding. JNeuroSci 2009; 5387-08


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