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Current research indicates that when we are depressed, there may be a reason life looks “grey.” An article at psychcentral.com describes research out of Freiberg, Germany that has shown there are objectively measureable changes in the retinas of depressed patients that make their eyes less sensitive to contrast.
Dr. Emanuel Bubl and his associates used a device called a pattern electroretinogram (which thankfully they shorten to the acronym “PERG”) to measure “the tiny amount of electrical change in the eye made when the retina is stimulated by looking at an object with contrast, like a checkerboard.” The PERG device produces a tracing, similar to an ECG tracing of the electrical activity of the heart.
The researchers found “a strong and significant association between the severity of the depression and a decreased response in the PERG, suggesting that the more depressed the patient was, the less their retinas responded to the contrast pattern.”
Besides offering a scientific explanation of a cultural association between depression and the color grey, these findings might also lead to “an independent, objective, confirmatory, and possibly even specific, diagnostic criterion for depression,” which would be a big boon to clinicians and patients alike.
Another use of color in evaluating depression comes from research by gastroenterologist Peter Whorwell of University Hospital South Manchester. In a study including healthy individuals, people with depression and people with anxiety, a specifically adapted color wheel was used to help the participants associate their moods with color. An article at NBCNEWS.com reports that a number of consistencies were found, namely that “people with depression or anxiety were more likely to associate their mood with the color gray, while happier people preferred yellow.” Also darker shades correlated with darker moods.
A hopeful outcome of Whorwell’s research is that using colors may prove helpful as a non-verbal way to describe moods, especially useful with young children or others who might find it difficult to communicate verbally.
In addition to helping diagnose or express levels of depression, color may be used to treat depression, too. An article on color therapy at about.com tells us that going back as far as four thousand years ago, the Egyptians were building “healing temples of light” and “bathing patients in specific colors of light to produce different effects.” Ancient Chinese cultures apparently also practiced chromotherapy (light therapy), using colors to heal, and such practices continue in holistic and alternative medical treatments today.
At psychologytoday.com, an article on mindfulness meditation therapy
by Peter Strong, Ph.D. describes an exercise in mindfulness meditation that uses imagery — including color — to define one’s depression, and then offers ways to experiment with changing the depressed emotion by changing the imagery.
In the exercise — which is described in detail in the article — we are encouraged to close our eyes and relax, then turn our attention towards our depression, being mindful as we “sit” with the emotion, using it as the object of our meditation. If we feel ourselves being sucked into the emotion, we are to “recognize this force” and pull ourselves back into a mindful state.
Next, we are invited to intuitively observe the color of the emotion, noting its sheen and density and any other details. Strong states that “the power is in the details, because this gives you a handle on the emotion. Coming to know the structure of your depression helps you establish a relationship with it,” which helps us to not become overwhelmed when the emotion arises.
Once we have attained “a good mindful relationship with [our] depression and… have a good sense of its color,” we move on to experimentation, making changes to the color imagery and remaining mindful so that we can “assess at the intuitive level” whether the changes are effective.
According to Strong, “The underlying principle is that emotions have an internal structure and that structure is formed around imagery, the natural language of the psyche. Change the imagery and you change the emotion.”
I would encourage reading the article if you are interested in doing the exercise, as my description of it is admittedly somewhat obtuse.
I’m sure more research on color and moods will be forthcoming. In the meantime, maybe we should heed some of the well-worn clichés: look on the “bright” side, “lighten” up, and try not to remain in the “dark.”
If you can do all of that, you should be "in the pink."