Author Archives: Pamela Nicole Romero

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain. (n.d.). Introduction to FMRI — Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from

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.

How many Ph.D.’s does it take to make Chocolate?

If you ever want to see students and professors alike act like children, take them to a chocolate factory. When we went to the Chocolate Museum last week, I could not contain myself. I started jumping up and down for a solid ten minutes and could not hide away my huge smile. I ate bits and pieces of chocolate that fell into our table until my stomach hurt. And I made everyone laugh when I spilled chocolate on myself.

Ecstatic in my chocolate fantasy.

We got a demo on how to prepare milk chocolate. Milk chocolate requires a colder temperature than dark chocolate (closer to room temperature). So we had to pour the chocolate unto the table and move it around with two spatulas. The Chocolate Museum speaker’s quick moves reminded me of an artist painting fast yet ever precise brushstrokes.


chocolate demo


I remembered reading an earlier year’s blog post on chocolate (Bouguyon, 2015) before coming to Paris, so as I saw the demo, I knew that moving chocolate around was harder than it seemed. Hence why I was not surprised when some of my classmates struggled to move the chocolate around fast enough. I was quite surprised (and quite amused), however, at how much Dr. Frenzel and Rachel struggled at. I thought that all that pipetting and fine movements done in experiments were going to help, but it seemed like two Ph.D.’s could not keep up with the chocolate maker!

Chaos happens when you take these two out of the classroom.

The presenter’s directions caught my eye, as he said “scrape the smaller spatula on the bigger one.” So what separated his movements from the rest of ours? I hypothesized it had something to do with not only his years of experience, but also at how he looked at the task itself. He differentiated his hand movements on the basis of the size of the tool each hand held….

And that is how I ran into a study titled “Object Properties and Cognitive Load in the Formation of Associative Memory during Precision Lifting” that looks at how the size of an object and our memory of its previous use influences how we lift it up (Li et al., 2009).

In this study, researchers studied how we associate how an object looks (its size or color) to how much it weighs. Associative memory is “the ability to learn and remember the relationship between two unrelated items” (Suzuki, 2015). So we form associative memories when we learn to associate a small spoon as relatively lightweight, for example.

Researchers assigned 40 volunteers to one of four groups: color cue single task (CCS), color cue dual task (CCD), no cue (NC), or size cue (SC). Cue here implies that after a few trials, you will learn to associate an object’s feature (color, size, or neither) with its weight. In the color cue dual task, apart from associating the color of an object with its weight, participants also performed a memory task between lifting objects.

Participants had to lift three objects that weighed either 580 or 280 grams and were either green or blue colored. Two objects had the same size but different weights (580 or 280 grams), while two of the same objects had a different size but same color.

Objects had to be lifted with three fingers (thumb, index, and middle finger), since that way objects are all grasped at around the same angle (2.3 Task). There was a sensor inside each object that measured the force (horizontal and vertical, in Newtons) and acceleration (m/s) at which each object was picked up (2.2 Apparatus).

Figure 1 (Li et al., 2009). Diagram of the objects and force measurement device used.


Participants heard a tone to indicate they had to lift the object as fast as they could. Four seconds later, they had to put the object back down. Each participant completed 2 trials (color, size, or no cue lifts) of 18 times each (36 total).

To study how much force the participants estimated they needed to lift each object, researchers calculated how much force was exerted during the first 70 ms of an objected being lifted. Since it is so early in the process of lifting an object, this short timespan tells researchers more about how much force participants though they needed. For example, has it ever happened to you that you imagine an object is heavier than it actually is? So at first you do an awkward movement where you exert more force than you actually need to (take that to be the first 70ms researchers are analyzing). Quite quickly though, you realize that the object isn’t as heavy as you first thought and exert less force than you did during those first milliseconds (hence why researchers did not look at how much force participants exerted overall or later on during those 4s).

Figure 5 (Li et al., 2009). Y-axis (label not provided) measures average grip force (N).

Researchers found that participants relied the most on size to estimate how much force to use when lifting an object with unknown weight (Fig. 5). Put another way, they showed the most difference in how much force they used when picking up objects of different sizes. Results also showed that participants learned to associate, to a lesser extent, an object’s color with its weight (Figure 5).

So this study suggests that our lovely Ph.D.’s can someday also succeed at mixing chocolate just as well as the museum speaker could. All they might need could be some more practice, so they too can learn to associate how much force they should use when using the small and big spatula.

And just to make you jealous, I will let you know that I am writing this while having the best hot chocolate in all of Paris at Café de Flore. If you come to Paris, do not leave without trying it!

Truly a must-have in Paris!



Bouguyon, K. (2015). Making Chocolate like a Pro | NBB in Paris. Retrieved June 26, 2017, from

Li, Y., Randerath, J., Bauer, H., Marquardt, C., Goldenberg, G., & Hermsd?rfer, J. (2009). Object properties and cognitive load in the formation of associative memory during precision lifting. Behavioural Brain Research, 196(1), 123–130.

Suzuki, W. (2015). Associative Learning and the Hippocampus. Retrieved June 26, 2017, from

Pictures taken by writer, with consent of persons depicted. June 2017.


The Unfamiliar Familiarity

           I like to think of myself as international2. I was born and raised in Honduras, and went to the United States for college. Now that I’m in France, I’ve been able to draw interesting parallels and contrasts between Honduran and U.S. culture to Parisian culture.

Map of Central America, Honduras in red-pink. I’m from Tegucigalpa, the capital.

View of the town I spent most of my weekends growing up with my family.
Cedros, Honduras.


Freshman year at Emory, and my now 2nd home.


Something that worried me before my trip was hearing how unfriendly to strangers French people are. I thought the U.S. was already unfriendly compared to home, so for the U.S. to consider the French unfriendly meant I would have the hardest of times making myself comfortable in Paris.


Turns out people were wrong. I feel that French people are even friendlier than in the U.S. Their friendliness is just a different kind of friendliness we’re used to at first glance. But once you open up with a fact about yourself or ask about them, the French are as open and willing to help you out as Hondurans would.


The Unfamiliar

When I first arrived, I could see what people meant. The metros are crowded places where you stand 10-25 minutes literally an inch (or less) apart from people, but they don’t even look at you. It felt so…awkward. In Honduras, I’m used to not only smiling but also greeting every passerby. In the U.S., I at least get to smile at people if we make eye contact. In France, both of these are not only rare, but make you feel weird and ignored. It wasn’t until I got here is that I learned that French people save their smiles for those they know…


As you can see…it’s pretty tight in there.


The Familiar

I was surprised to discover how well along I got with the French. The same kind of people I had to force myself to not smile to in metros were the same people I ran into in cafes and whom I could dance the night away.

I distinctly remember going to a small café near Cité for food since I had lost track of time and the cafeteria had closed. I was originally planning to go to a bigger café named Le Comptoir I had found on Yelp, but the road that one had closed off already. So I ran into this tiny restaurant/bar on my way around the park. It was pretty small, just having about 5 tables total. But I was pretty hungry, so I sat down and ordered whatever I could tell had meat on the menu.


I finished eating as the restaurant closed. Swing music started playing, couples started coming in, and dance moves started being rehearsed. I loved to see how the once dull and empty place filled with color, laughs, and music. Even the owner started opening himself up to me. He gave me free cheese and coffee. I talked to him a bit in Spanish. And I smiled at seeing how the tiny restaurant I had been in quickly turned into a dance floor.


These people looked so different from those at the metro. I not only talked to people, I even danced with them. The French laughed, were loud, and yes, smiled real big. Their liveliness reminded me of my Hispanic culture. I wondered how everything could change in a blink of an eye in this city. Especially the people themselves.

The Why

So I started getting curious. It seemed like a paradox to me. I knew from NBB302 that smiling is a universal human emotion (Gazzaniga 2013). I also knew that it took more energy and muscles to frown than to smile (Gazzaniga 2013). So why were the French so serious in crowded places, when I now knew from experience how warm and cheerful they really are?

Turns out how much you smile and even how you smile varies depending on where you are from. The more immigration your country has had during the last 500 years, the more you smile (Cesare 2013). People who are used to ‘melting pot cultures’ are used to going against their gut feeling fears of people that look different from them (Cesare 2013).

This immediately makes me think about the amygdala. The amygdala activates when we see faces of people that look different from us (Constandi 2012). The amygdala processes our emotions (Constandi 2012).

Location of amygdala (emotion processing) and hippocampus (memory).


Our brain naturally makes associations between how people look and the world around us. For example, most French people I talked assumed I was American simply because I looked different from them. This would trigger different associations they would later admit to me having about Americans. This is where their amygdala (emotion) and hippocampus (memory) would come in. Evolutionarily, our brain has developed to pay special attention to things and people around us that are different from us, since they could have been potentially harmful in the past (Rychlowska 2015).


However, in our modern interconnected world, we have learned to go against our gut feeling. So what stopped the French owner from assuming I was an annoying tourist and listen to my story?

Interaction between the amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.


The amygdala is interconnected with decision-making circuits in our brain. This is what causes us to second-guess our gut feelings and not act on them. Your anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) can “detect” a conflict between your gut feeling (“this person is different from me”) and your conscious views (“never judge a book by its cover”). This triggers another area of our brain, the dorsolateral frontal cortex (DLPFC) to activate. The DLPFC can control the amygdala’s activation. So, it’s sort of that voice in your head that calms you down and says, “Give him a chance” when your date’s first impression doesn’t exactly go well.


My Now

Together, my amygdala has been a bit afraid of all these new people and social rules I don’t know. My anterior cingulate cortex reminds me this is an adventure I want to be in, alleviating my tension between my fear and excitement of the unknown. And my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex reminds me that no matter how unfamiliar a place might seem, I will always find my unfamiliar familiarity and piece of home anywhere I go.

Wherever you go, let people surprise you. You’ll find your own unfamiliar familiarity anywhere you go.

I’d like to leave you with the words I got from a visiting professor at Emory. It’s become my motto and gets me through homesickness: “We are scientists. The more lost we think we are, the more at home we actually are.”