Fake v. Authentic Paintings

I can’t believe time has flown so fast! It feels like not so long ago I was looking for my sketchbook to pack into my bag (which I totally forgot last minute), and now I’m sitting at my last French café before departing. As an artist, one of the things I was looking forward to the most before my trip was the art. The creativity surrounding every corner, from paintings in a museum to music in your every corner to that little pastel house around the corner you last remember turning at, Paris itself is truly a work of art. As I first wrote on my Facebook wall after my first day in the city:

“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.”

-Victor Hugo

While my group and I were touring the Chateau D’Amboise, I was legitimately blown away to get to see da Vinci’s bury place inside the royal chapel. He is my greatest inspiration as both a scientist and an artist. I have grown up not only watching documentaries about him but also reading copies of his notebooks. I wanted to scream, shake, and cry all at once.

The royal chapel inside the Chateau D’Amboise.


Leonardo da Vinci’s tomb.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t tell which ones were replicas and which ones were real. So I had to ask the tour guide every now to verify my predictions. That brought to mind a study I had previously read about how our brain responds differently when we think we are viewing authentic paintings v. replicas.

In this study, participants were familiar with Rembrandt (an Amsterdam-based artist famous for his portraits), but had no formal art instruction. Participants were shown pictures of authentic paintings or replicas for 15 seconds each. Before each painting, a voice recording told the participants whether the painting they were about to see was a fake or an authentic Rembrandt painting. For half of each paintings shown (authentic or replicas), participants were mislead into thinking an authentic was a fake or vice versa. Participants were not told how to view the paintings, but rather were just given 15s to view them as they pleased.

Figure 1A-B. Sample images researchers used. Which one do you think is the fake? (Huang, Bridge, Kemp, & Parker, 2011).







Figure 1C. Shows the timing of pause (9s), the audio telling if the paint will be real/fake (6s), and the painting (15s). (Huang et al., 2011).

While viewing, participants were in a scanner. Researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to view brain activity. An fMRI does not really view brain activity but changes in oxygenation levels, or the Blood Oxygenation Level Dependency (BOLD) signal (Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain, n.d.). Since neurons that are more active need more oxygen, it is a good measure to estimate brain activity. To the researchers surprise, more brain activation occurred while participants were viewing fake paintings.

Areas known to be involved with vision in the occipital and temporal lobe such as the fusiform gyrus (involved in face processing) did NOT show a difference in activation in real v. fake.

Occipital (purple) and temporal (green) lobes of the brain. (Vidal, Perrone-Bertolotti, Kahane, & Lachaux, 2015).


However, researchers did find differences in activations in other non-visual brain areas such as the frontopolar cortex (FPC) in visual-spatial memory (Costa et al., 2013) and decision-making (Laureiro-Martínez et al., 2014). The right precuneus was also more active, which is involved in visuo-spatial imagery and self-referential (or tasks involving thinking about oneself) (Cavanna & Trimble, 2006). Lastly, the researchers also found greater activation in the middle frontal gyrus in response to when participants were told the paintings were copies. The middle frontal gyrus is involved in attention (Japee, Holiday, Satyshur, Mukai, & Ungerleider, 2015). The orbitofrontal cortex is associated with memory (Frey & Petrides, 2000) and regulating emotions (like how you react to them) (Frey & Petrides, 2000).

Figure 2A. Shows the areas found to be activated higher when participants were told to view fake v. authentic paintings (Huang et al., 2011). Gray (less) – Yellow (more activated).

The researchers discuss these findings by suggesting that the FPC could be active in response to them recalling visual memories and ‘hypothesizing’ whether the artwork shown is authentic or fake (Huang et al., 2011). The precuneus is active when viewing things and visual imagery, so this area could be active in response to seeing the artwork. The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), aside from memory and emotion regulation, the researchers mention is involved in reward. Therefore, researchers suggest that this area became active in response to thinking about how the price of the artwork would change if the artwork is a fake (Huang et al., 2011).

In all, these findings suggest that, like me, people build hypotheses about whether an artwork is real or a fake while they view them. And whether we think they are fake or real change how our brains respond to it, bringing in different memory processes (FPC) to maybe compare across different real or fake artworks we have previously seen. Maybe thinking about whether it is real or not affects how we feel (OFC) about it. This study suggests that thinking something is a copy of someone else’s work changes how we think about them, possibly changing how we feel and how much we value the work.

Works Cited

Cavanna, A. E., & Trimble, M. R. (2006). The precuneus: a review of its functional anatomy and behavioural correlates. Brain, 129(3), 564–583. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awl004

Costa, A., Oliveri, M., Barban, F., Bonn?, S., Koch, G., Caltagirone, C., & Carlesimo, G. A. (2013). The Right Frontopolar Cortex Is Involved in Visual-Spatial Prospective Memory. PLoS ONE, 8(2), e56039. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0056039

Frey, S., & Petrides, M. (2000). Orbitofrontal cortex: A key prefrontal region for encoding information. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97(15), 8723–7. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.140543497

Huang, M., Bridge, H., Kemp, M. J., & Parker, A. J. (2011). Human cortical activity evoked by the assignment of authenticity when viewing works of art. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5, 134. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2011.00134

Japee, S., Holiday, K., Satyshur, M. D., Mukai, I., & Ungerleider, L. G. (2015). A role of right middle frontal gyrus in reorienting of attention: a case study. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 9, 23. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnsys.2015.00023

Laureiro-Martínez, D., Canessa, N., Brusoni, S., Zollo, M., Hare, T., Alemanno, F., & Cappa, S. F. (2014). Frontopolar cortex and decision-making efficiency: comparing brain activity of experts with different professional background during an exploration-exploitation task. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 927. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00927

Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain. (n.d.). Introduction to FMRI — Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from https://www.ndcn.ox.ac.uk/divisions/fmrib/what-is-fmri/introduction-to-fmri

Vidal, J. R., Perrone-Bertolotti, M., Kahane, P., & Lachaux, J.-P. (2015). Intracranial spectral amplitude dynamics of perceptual suppression in fronto-insular, occipito-temporal, and primary visual cortex. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01545

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