Knowing a painting is forged changes how your brain sees it

Unless you're an art expert, your brain is completely unable to distinguish between a genuine masterpiece and a convincing forgery. But if you're told you're looking at a forgery, your brain goes haywire trying to deal with being duped.

That's the finding of Oxford researchers, who scanned the brains of fourteen volunteers as they looked at images of Rembrandt paintings, some of which were real while others were convincing fakes. The volunteers were not initially told which they were looking at, and their brains showed no ability to distinguish between what was real and what was fake. When the researchers then informed the volunteers of the authenticity of the paintings - not always truthfully - two markedly different responses emerged. Regardless of what the volunteers were actually looking at, their brains responded as though the researchers were always telling them the truth.

When the volunteers were told they were looking at the genuine article, the part of the brain that deals with rewards - such as tasting good food or winning a bet - was activated. The fact that looking at a real masterpiece provides precisely the same sort of neural thrill as a gambling victory is intriguing, and it perhaps explains why people are willing to travel halfway around the world to see an original painting that they could just as easily see with a quick Google search. Oxford history professor Martin Kemp explains:

"Our findings support what art historians, critics and the general public have long believed — that it is always better to think we are seeing the genuine article. 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."

But when the participants were told they were looking at a forgery, a very different reaction took place. This new knowledge triggered a complex range of responses, all coming from parts of the brain involved in strategic thinking. The researchers suggest this is the brain trying to sort out two competing stimuli - the opinion held just a moment ago that this was an incredible work of art, and the new knowledge that this is actually just a fake. For their part, the volunteers said they immediately tried to work out why previous experts had dismissed the painting in front of them as just a fake.

Senior author Andrew Parker says this demonstrates the competing influences our brains have to deal with when making aesthetic judgments. Their brain imaging suggests that we're not consciously aware of all the different neural stimuli that influence our ultimate judgment of a painting's value. It's like the old philistine maxim, "I may not know art, but I know what I like." Our brains seem wired to respond to art in much the same way - and they really don't like forgeries.

Via Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Portion of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" via History of Holland.