It seems obvious that what you see influences what you feel. Seeing a smiling face can make you happy. Seeing a scowling face can make you distressed. But what if the opposite were also true? What if what you feel influences what you see literally, and it is easier to see a smiling face when you are happy, or to see a scowling face when you are distressed? This is known as the affective vision effect. In the initial experiments, the current researchers demonstrated that a person's feelings do influence what he or she is conscious of seeing. In the research proposed here, they will examine the mechanisms by which feelings influence vision. By focusing on the mechanisms of the affective vision effect, this research will provide evidence that contradicts the everyday impression that people dispassionately behold the world around them. Depending on how a person feels, he or she will literally see the world differently (it is not just a matter of interpretation). And, if one person routinely feels happy and sees brief smiles in the face of a friend or co-worker, whereas another person routinely feels distressed and sees brief frowns and grimaces, then those two people live in experientially different worlds, even if the actual physical world is the same.
Findings from this work will make it possible to determine whether certain types of life experiences (e.g., prolonged drug use, living in urban poverty, or in environments with a high base rate of threat or chronic stress) wire people to see the world differently. In addition to this type of impact, this research will have significant educational impacts by providing science education for undergraduate students, graduate students, and patrons of the Boston Museum of Science.
If you are like most people, then you probably believe that what you see influences how you feel. But this research shows the opposite is also true. What you feel influences what you see. When you feel unpleasant you will literally see the world differently than when you are having a pleasant feeling. There is a common misperception about the workings of the human brain -- that in every life, your brain is a reactive organ. But nothing could be further from the truth. It may seem to you as if you see a person smile on the sidewalk or in a coffeeshop, and this makes you feel happy, but your brain doesn't really work this way. Your brain is a predictive organ. A majority of your brain activity consists of predictions about the world — thousands of them at a time — based on your past experience. These predictions are not deliberate prognostications like "Apple stock is going to hit it big on the stock market," but unconscious anticipations of every sight, sound and other sensation you might encounter in every instant. These neural "guesses" largely shape what you see and they originate in networks of neurons that are important for experiencing feelings. When your feelings change, so do the predictions that the neurons issue to the visual system in your brain. This is why what you feel influences what you see. In the experiments we conducted that were supported by this grant, we changed our test subjects' feelings to make them feel pleasant or unpleasant. And then we observed how it influenced their vision. In some experiments, feelings influenced how slowly or quickly test subjects saw visual smiling and scowling faces. In one experiment, test subjects saw neutral faces as having a more furrowed brow, a more surly mouth and so on. This sort of affective bias may seem surprising to you, but it is perfectly normal. It is probably how your own brain works every day. I say probably, because we also learned that some people have a much stronger connection between feeling and seeing than do others.