Beauty is in the mood of the beholder

How the your mood affects how you view the world

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Mood affects our interactions

Our mood changes how we interact with the world around us.  Think back to you last bad day, what was the weather like? how were the drivers? Chances are you remember them all as bad and reacted accordingly.

In fact, Van der Zwaag and colleagues showed in 2013 that your mood changes how good of a driver you are, supporting Bill Murray's historic line "Don't Drive Angry."

But how does our mood affect our view of the world? What is the brain doing differently when we are happy vs sad?

Mood and Attraction

For years researchers have known that your mood affects both how attractive you seem and how attractive you find others.

In one of my all-time favorite commercials, Rob Lowe goes around comparing himself to what he would be like without Direct TV. While I can't say DirectTV makes you attractive, things like the weather seem to play a role (Gueguen 2013).

But what is the underlying mechanism?

Perception

Are we changing the physical perception, the qualia of the face

Reaction

Or are we see the same face and reacting to it differently?

Testing your head

In order to figure this out, I used Electroencephalography (EEG) as my tool of choice (thats me wearing an EEG cap on the left).  An EEG measures your brain waves and can tell how your brain reacts to different stimuli.

In my case, I showed participants images of attractive and average looking faces and measured their response.  I also used music (to put people in a positive mood) or an auditory recording of facts about Canada (to induce a neutral mood).  I then compared their responses to hundreds of faces across these different conditions.

Students in a Science Class
So what happened?

Facial Attractiveness differentiates fast

The first thing we see is that whether the viewed face is attractive or not is determined really fast. Regardless of mood, there is a separation happening within 200 ms of the face being presented!

For those of you not used to looking at EEG results, this is known as an averaged ERP (event related potential), which is just science talk for how the activity of the brain changes over time after being presented with a stimulus (in this case a face).  The x axis is time with 0 corresponding to when the face appears on a screen, while the y-axis is brain activity. 

 

That dip that is highlighted is known as the N170, a classic time point that responds differently to faces than other objects, and as we can see here, differently to different characterizations of the face, like attractiveness or emotion (Blau et al. 2017)

Mood affects are slower

But still really fast

So same deal as above, except this time we are focusing on the EPN, a brain response that happens around 300 ms following a visual stimulus and is sensitive to the attractiveness of a face (Werheid, Schacht, and Sommer 2007).

Here we see the mood starting to have an affect, with the positive mood equally shifting the faces to be more attractive.

The coolest part is whats happening with the red and blue lines.  These are basically on top of eachother, meaning the brain is finding them equally attractive.  But their not.  One is an average face while the other is attractive! the only difference is the viewers mood!

So what does it all mean?

The mood you are in affects how you process the world.  It is like a filter, your brain is able to make an accurate judgement, but after about 300 ms that no longer matters, the mood influenced image is what you are reacting to.  Additionally, this mood effect is strong enough to make an average looking face appear attractive!

So the next time you are on a date, don't go in dreading it. Get happy! Get excited! You may find the world is a little more attractive than you thought.

 

This work was completed as part of my senior thesis at Hamilton College. 

You can view the complete write up here.

Special thanks to Ravi Thiruchselvam for advising me on this study.

All references to published work are linked above.

©2020 by Alexander Cates.

ac@alexcates.com