Knowing that a picture represents real life changes how we perceive it, say scientists in the Netherlands. Findings presented at the annual conference of the European College of Neuropharmacology show that people react differently to an image if they are told it is art, compared with images from real life.

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How we view images changes if we know they represent real life.

Part of the study has also been published in the journal Brain and Cognition.

In 1790, the philosopher Immanuel Kant published his Critique of Judgment, in which he claimed that to appreciate a work of art, we need to distance ourselves from it emotionally.

This new study confirms that most people's conscious, emotional response will not be the same when presented with a work of art as when they see a real-life image.

To look more closely at how people's brains respond on an unconscious level, a group of researchers from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, carried out two experiments.

Assessing real-life images and works of art

First, 24 student volunteers each judged a series of 120 pictures, half of which would normally be considered pleasant, and half unpleasant.

The pictures were equally divided into three groups, art, fictitious, and real. Each group was introduced with a brief explanation of the type of pictures in the group, whether they depicted true or staged events, or realistic paintings, and where the pictures came from, whether archives, instructional materials, or museum collections.

As the participants viewed the images, an electroencephalogram (EEG) measured their brain activity. The measurements focused on a brain signal known as the Late Positive Potential (LPP). Measurements reveal how much electromagnetic activity there is in the cortex 0.6 to 0.9 seconds after first seeing a stimulus.

In addition, they gave a score for the "likeability" and "attractiveness" of each picture.

Results were consistently different when participants saw an image that they thought was real, compared with a so-called work of art. Fictitious images elicited a lower emotional response than real-life ones, whether the images were positive or negative.

Works of art were also judged to be more "likeable" than real-life images.

This suggests that the human brain unconsciously adjusts its emotional response, depending on whether a person believes something should be understood at face value, or if it should be interpreted as art. It would seem that structure and style drive the liking in the case of artwork, while emotion drives the reaction to real-life images.

Movies and documentaries elicit different response

The experiment was repeated with the addition of movie clips and documentaries. This time, no neurological impact was seen in the participants' emotional response.

This, says lead author Noah van Dongen, suggests that the context has a more complex effect than one would expect. He speculates that the neurological effect decreases when there is too much information, or if the information is ambiguous.

"This work suggests that when we expect to be dealing with an artwork, our brain responds differently than when we expect to be dealing with reality. When we think we are not dealing with reality, our emotional response appears to be subdued on a neural level."

Noah van Dongen, Erasmus University, Rotterdam

If a person hears that an image is a work of art rather than real life, they will respond on two different levels, the behavioral and the neural.

Van Dongen speculates that when people look at a real-life image, they focus on the content. But when they look at a work of art, they distance themselves, in order to study or appreciate the composition, shapes, and colors.

The evolution of the human brain, he says, may have "hard-wired" people to adjust their response to objects they are exposed to in different contexts.

The suggestion that we respond to art on two levels, the behavioral and the emotional, implies Kant's 200-year old theory might have a neurological basis, says van Dongen.

He calls for more research into the subtleties of automatic emotion regulation, and he proposes using art to deepen our understanding of the human brain, emotions, and cognition.

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Written by Yvette Brazier