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The Science of Fear: How Color Matters When Seeing Someone Who's Afraid

First Posted: Oct 22, 2015 10:28 AM EDT

What happens to your face when you feel afraid? Scientists have taken a closer look at what happens to the coloration of faces when they're afraid, delving a bit further into the science of fear.

Facial color is often used to refer to emotional states. For example, there are the phrases "flushed with anger" and "pale with fear."  While some studies have investigated the effects of facial color on expression, though, there is limited neurophysiological evidence showing the effects of facial color on emotional expression perception.

In this latest study, the researchers measured the brain activity from 15 participants during a facial emotion identification tasks of neutral expressions of natural facial color, fearful expressions of natural facial color, neutral expressions of bluish facial color and fearful expressions of bluish facial color both in supraliminal and subliminal conditions.

So what did they find? It turns out that the bluish-colored faces caused a different reaction than the naturally-colored faces.

"We have found that the bluish-colored faces increased the N170 latency effect of facial expressions compared to the natural-colored faces, indicating that the bluish color modulated the processing of fearful expressions in the subliminal condition," said Tetsuto Minami, one of the researchers, in a news release.

The findings have provided electrophysiological evidence that facial color affects the subliminal processing of fearful expressions. More specifically, the results showed that the effect of facial color on expression processing was significant; this suggests that facial color has more of an effect on the early stages of expression processing compared to on the later processing stages.

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