Does Being Sad Improve Conscious Cognitive Focus?

There is a growing body of research that suggests that mood influences our ability to learn. Specifically, the theory behind this research supports the idea that being in a sad mood creates a narrower focus of attention, thus providing an individual with an enhanced ability to implicitly acquire and retain information. Implicit learning is unintended and is required to function. For instance, people must learn how to disseminate various sensory cues such as smells and sights and how to identify pertinent embedded information. The latter example was the focus of a recent study designed to test this theory.

Julie Bertels of the Centre for Research in Cognition and Neurosciences at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium chose to assess how well 128 college students were able to acquire and retain information on a statistical learning (SL) task and how their mood affected this ability. SL is similar to implicit learning and involves being able to identify numbers or letters embedded in other cues. The participants were required to complete the task while they listened to a sad or neutral story. They were assessed before and after the experiment. Some were put into a delayed group and assessed 20 minutes after completion to ensure mood states had returned to baseline levels. These delayed participants, along with the other participants, were asked to consciously retrieve the information they learned during the experiment. In total, three check-in points were used to assess SL skills and mood: immediately after the experiment, 20 minutes later (for delayed group), and 20 minutes further (for same delayed group).

The results revealed that mood definitely impacted the ability to consciously retrieve information. Even though Bertels found that the neutral and sad groups both performed equally during the tasks and immediately after, the confidence they reported pertaining to their performance was quite different. In fact, the sad group reported more confidence and indeed was better able to consciously retrieve the statistical information they acquired during the experiment. Regardless of whether sad/neutral participants were also part of the delayed group, the results remained the same. These findings demonstrate that although negative mood states can impair some cognitive capacities, the narrowing of focus appears to enhance statistical and implicit learning. Bertels added, “Further studies should systematically investigate the possibility that negative words induce an analytic processing style promoting conscious processing and, consequently, higher levels of performance in recall.”

Bertels J, Demoulin C, Franco A, Destrebecqz A. (2013). Side effects of being blue: Influence of sad mood on visual statistical learning. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59832. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059832

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  • creighton

    April 17th, 2013 at 3:43 AM

    Until I read this I never would have thought this to be the case. You always hear about people who are depressed and are not able to focus and concentrate but this kind of seems to contradict that.

  • harrison

    April 17th, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    if being sad helped me with this I would always maintain this sadness that is spoken of here.while its easy to relate sadness to moods,it is not that simple when it comes to relating sadness to the entire learning process in an individual.

  • Jesse

    April 18th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    What? There’s no way. I can’t ever perform my best when I am the least bit down.

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