It’s good to be grumpy, especially if you need to proofread or perform another detail-oriented task. At least that is the finding of a new study on mood and how the brain processes language. New findings from the University of Arizona found that when we’re in a bad mood, we can identify literary, or written inconsistencies in a faster manner.
According to Study Finds, the researchers, led by Vicky Lai, an assistant professor of psychology and cognitive science at UArizona, examined how people’s brains processed language when they were in a happy mood as opposed to being cranky.
“Mood and language seem to be supported by different brain networks. But we have one brain, and the two are processed in the same brain, so there is a lot of interaction going on,” said Lai, in a university news release. “We show that when people are in a negative mood, they are more careful and analytical. They scrutinize what’s actually stated in a text, and they don’t just fall back on their default world knowledge.”
For the study, participants watched clips from sad movies like Sophie’s Choice, which put them in a negative mood, or a funny show, like the TV show Friends. They subsequently were shown stories on a computer screen while undergoing an EEG, a test that measures brain waves.
In each story there was a critical sentence that when swapped into another story, didn’t make sense. For example, in a story about driving at night, the last sentence read, “With the lights on, you can see more.” In a later story on stargazing, the critical sentence read, “With the lights on, you can see less.” Both sentences were true in their initial context, but when the sentences were swapped, they didn’t make sense. For example, in the story about driving at night, the sentence that was swapped read, “With the lights on, you can see less.” Obviously, in this context the sentence was wrong.
The participants took the test twice, once in a negative mood and the second time in a happy mood. The results showed that when the study subjects were in a bad mood, their EEG reading showed a type of brain activity closely associated with re-analysis.
“We show that mood matters, and perhaps when we do some tasks we should pay attention to our mood,” said Lai. “If we’re in a bad mood, maybe we should do things that are more detail-oriented, like proofreading."
Although the study was conducted in the Netherlands and participants were Dutch-speaking natives, Lai believes their findings translate across languages and cultures. The participants were all women because Lai wanted to align her study with existing literature. Future studies would include a more diverse gender representation, she said.
Jos van Berkum of the Netherlands’ Utrecht University co-authored the study and commented on how important the results were in real life matters.
“When thinking about how mood affects them, many people just consider things like being grumpy, eating more ice cream or ─ at best ─ interpreting someone’s talk in a biased way,” he said. “But there’s much more going on, also in unexpected corners of our minds. That’s really interesting. Imagine your laptop being more or less precise as a function of its battery level — that’s unthinkable. But in human information processing, something like that seems to be going on.”
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