Why Do We See Grey When We Feel Blue?

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Depression affects vision

“Then blue turns to grey and try as you may
You just don’t feel good, you don’t feel alright” – Blue Turns To Grey, The Rolling Stones


UPDATE: The study that this article is based on has been retracted.


Sadness seems bound up in colour. We feel blue when we’re down. The world seems a dark, colourless and grey place when we’re depressed. Ever wonder why we use these shades when describing negative moods?

Well, some psychologists wondered and may have found the answer. Researchers from the University of Rochester in New York conducted a study whereby 127 volunteers were shown a video clip and then had their colour perception tested. The subjects were either shown the clip from Disney’s The Lion King where (SPOILER ALERT!) Simba witnesses his father’s death or a clip of a stand-up comedy routine.

The participants were then shown tricky desaturated patches and were asked to identify the colour. Although each patch was either Red, Yellow, Blue or Green the desaturation process rendered them grey-like with only a hint of the original hue.

The researchers found that the people who had witnessed the sad scene from The Lion King were less likely to discern colours on the yellow-blue axis, but had no problem with colours on the red-green axis. Those who saw the comedy routine were able to discern both.

This is important because we already know that low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine affects people’s perception of certain colours. Want to guess which? Yep, those on the yellow-blue axis.

Dopamine helps to regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. Dopamine levels that are out of kilter, either too high or too low, are linked to depression. This recent study shows that even temporary mood changes can quite literally alter how we see the world.

Previous research from the University of Freiburg found that people with depression are less able to differentiate between black and white contrasts, making the world appear more uniformly grey.

If you are worried about depression in relation to yourself or a loved one then please take comfort in the knowledge that it can be treated. The first step is getting it diagnosed by a GP or medical professional.


  • WebMD – dopamine-may-play-new-role-in-depression
  • PubMed – Seeing gray when feeling blue? Depression can be measured in the eye of the diseased.
  • Association for Psychological  Science – feeling-blue-and-seeing-blue-sadness-may-impair-color-perception

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  1. Sulaiman Dawood 4th September 2015
  2. Halina from Poland 8th September 2015

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