Oxford experts' brain research on Rembrandts suggests public prefer the genuine article

By Culture24 Reporter | 06 December 2011
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A photo of a head silhouetted against a red art backdrop
Research from Oxford "shows that the way we view art is not rational"© Future Tense
As anyone who has ever felt intimidated by their own lack of art knowledge might attest, the reputation of a work can supersede the risk of voicing a potentially foolish opinion.

In a new piece of research involving 14 onlookers, a brain scanner and a selection of imposters and real deals touted as Rembrandts, scientists at Oxford University have gone some way to confirming an often unspoken truth.

"Our findings have shown what art historians, critics and the general public have long believed – that it is always better to think we are seeing the genuine article," says Professor Martin Kemp, an Emeritus Professor of the History of Art, reflecting on results showing that the brain signals of the viewers couldn't distinguish between genuine and fake artworks.

"Our study shows that the way we view art is not rational, that even when we cannot distinguish between two works, the knowledge that one was painted by a renowned artist makes us respond to it very differently.

"The fact that people travel to galleries around the world to see an original painting suggests that this conclusion is reasonable."

Nothing new there, you might think. But a further reckoning from the research, which is being published this week in esteemed tome Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, shows that our brains react differently when we're under the illusion that canvasses are authentic, regardless of whether our eyes suggest otherwise.

The part of the brain that deals with "rewarding events", such as a slap-up meal or a winning bet, becomes animated when we believe we’re eyeing up a revered slice of paintwork.

Conversely, according to the collaborative team from the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics and the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance, the part of the brain to do with planning new strategies goes to work when we're presented with a fake, attempting to surmise why experts dismissed it.

"Our findings support the idea that when we make aesthetic judgements, we are subject to a variety of influences," says Andrew Parker, a Professor of Physiology.

"Not all of these are immediately articulated. Indeed, some may be inaccessible to direct introspection, but their presence might be revealed by brain imaging.

"It suggests that different regions of the brain interact together when a complex judgment is formed, rather than there being a single area of the brain that deals with aesthetic judgements."

Rembrandt was chosen due to the longstanding debate surrounding many of his supposed creations, and a final result suggested that the judges' brains were largely unable to make correct choices when they were unbiased.

When it comes to strolling around galleries, perhaps it isn't always best to trust your own judgement.
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