Facial Expressions Alter Memory of Color

Summary: Facial expressions influence memory color effect, with angry and fearful faces more strongly affected than neutral faces. Participants perceived achromatic angry and fearful faces as red-yellow, indicating that expression impacts color memory.

This research highlights how emotions and memory color are interconnected. Future studies aim to explore attention toward different facial expressions and colors.

Key Facts:

  1. Angry and fearful faces influence memory color more than neutral faces.
  2. Participants saw achromatic angry and fearful faces as red-yellow.
  3. Research published in Journal of Vision on May 31, 2024.

Source: TUT

The association between facial expressions and the memory color effect has been elucidated through a collaborative effort involving the Cognitive Neurotechnology Unit and the Visual Perception and Cognition Laboratory at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Toyohashi University of Technology.

The memory color effect refers to the phenomenon in which knowledge of the typical color of a specific object (the memory color) influences the recognition of its actual color.

This study showed that angry and fearful faces were more strongly affected in terms of color recognition because of the memory color effect compared with neutral faces and that memory colors varied between expressions.

This shows a face covered in different colored paints.
However, it was not well understood whether everyday memories of facial colors or the memory colors formed by knowledge of the typical colors of specific objects also vary between expressions. Credit: Neuroscience News

The results of this study were published online in the Journal of Vision on May 31, 2024.


The face is an important characteristic for recognizing individuals, and as is shown by Japanese phrases such as “kaoiro wo ukagau” (Look at the complexion; i.e., be sensitive to someone’s mood, read someone’s countenance), facial color plays a key role in reading a person’s emotions.

Recent research has shown that facial color changes an individual’s judgment of expressions, with a reddish face tending to be regarded as angry, for example, even when faces with the same features are presented.

However, it was not well understood whether everyday memories of facial colors or the memory colors formed by knowledge of the typical colors of specific objects also vary between expressions.

Hence, the research team focused on the phenomenon in which color recognition changes according to memory colors, known as the memory color effect, and used facial images with different expressions and colors to conduct a psychophysical experiment.

Experimental participants were asked to select which color a face appeared to have from two options (the “typical color” and the “opposite color”) for facial images presented to them.

The typical color means the color that the observer holds as knowledge about the object and refers to the skin color, among others, in the case of faces. The opposite color refers to the color located opposite the typical color in terms of hue.

The experiment used three expression images with an angry face, a neutral face, and a fearful face with different colors. The experiment was conducted in a dimly illuminated room maintained at a constant brightness, thus mitigating the influence of ambient brightness on the appearance of the colors.

The experiment results showed that angry and fearful faces that were actually achromatic (gray) tended to appear to be colored red-yellow, their typical color, more than achromatic neutral faces did.

As red-yellow, the memory color for angry and fearful faces, has a higher saturation than for neutral faces, it is possible that the achromatic facial color may have tended to appear colored with the typical color.

This is similar to the reports of previous research that expressions introduce bias to the memorized facial color, and the recalled facial color was a red-yellow with a higher saturation than when it was actually observed.

First-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the primary author for this study, Yuya Hasegawa, explains, “In general, the color that anger brings to mind is red, and red is also often used when expressing anger. In that case, do people then regularly and empirically remember angry faces as being redder than neutral faces?

“We supposed that if people change the color of faces depending on their expression when remembering them, the memory color should differ for each expression, which inspired this study.”

Future Prospects

These outcomes are the first to reveal that expressions exert an influence on faces at the level of the memory color. Memory and attention are closely associated.

In the future, we will test whether attention tends to be directed toward “red angry faces” in preference to normal angry faces or red neutral faces and examine how to deepen our understanding of the mechanisms by which the remembered facial color differs according to the expression.


This research was supported by JSPS Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research JP22K17987, JP20H05956, and JP20H04273.

About this facial expression and memory research news

Author: Shino Okazaki
Source: TUT
Contact: Shino Okazaki – TUT
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Facial expressions affect the memory of facial colors” by Hasegawa, Y et al. Journal of Vision


Facial expressions affect the memory of facial colors

Facial color influences the perception of facial expressions, and emotional expressions bias how facial color is remembered. However, it remains unclear whether facial expressions affect daily facial color memory.

The memory color effect demonstrates that knowledge about typical colors affects the perception of the actual color of given objects. To investigate the effect of facial color memory, we examined whether the memory color effect for faces varies depending on facial expression.

We calculated the subjective achromatic point of the facial expression image stimulus and compared the degree to which it was shifted from the actual achromatic point between facial expression conditions.

We hypothesized that if the memory of facial color is influenced by the facial expression color (e.g., anger is a warm color, fear is a cold color), then the subjective achromatic point would vary with facial expression.

In Experiment 1, we recruited 13 participants who adjusted the color of facial expression stimuli (anger, neutral, and fear) and a banana stimulus to be achromatic.

No significant differences in the subjective achromatic point between facial expressions were observed. Subsequently, we conducted Experiment 2 with 23 participants because Experiment 1 did not account for the sensitivity to color changes on the face; humans perceive greater color differences in faces than in non-faces.

Participants selected which facial color they believed the expression stimulus appeared to be, choosing one of two options provided to them.

The results indicated that the subjective achromatic points of anger and fear faces significantly shifted toward the opposite color direction compared with neutral faces in the brief presentation condition.

This research suggests that the memory color of faces differs depending on facial expressions and supports the idea that the perception of emotional expressions can bias facial color memory.

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