U.S. Department of Defense


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Affective Disorders 133 (2011) 311–319; doi:10.1016/j.jad.2011.04.016


Background: Learned associations between depressive behavior and environmental stimuli signaling low light availability and winter season may play a role in seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The purpose of this study was to determine whether light and season environmental cues elicit emotional responses that are distinct in individuals with SAD.

Methods: Twenty-four currently depressed SAD participants were compared to 24 demographicallymatched controls with no depression history on emotional responses to outdoor scenes captured under two light intensity (i.e., clear, sunny vs. overcast sky) and three season (i.e., summer with green leaves, fall with autumn foliage, and winterwith bare trees) conditions. Emotion measures included surface facial electromyography (EMG) activity in the corrugator supercilii and zygomaticus major muscle regions, skin conductance, and self-reported mood state on the Profile of Mood States Depression–Dejection Subscale.

Results: Light intensity was a more salient cue than season in determining emotional reactions among SAD participants. Relative to controls, SAD participants displayed more corrugator activity, more frequent significant skin conductance responses (SCR), greater SCR magnitude, and more self-reported depressed mood in response to overcast stimuli and less corrugator activity, lower SCR magnitude, and less self-reported depressed mood in response to sunny stimuli.

Limitations: Study limitations include the single, as opposed to repeated, assessment and the lack of a nonseasonal depression group.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that extreme emotional reactivity to light-relevant stimuli may be a correlate of winter depression; and future work should examine its potential onset or maintenance significance.