Neuroscience study supports 200-year old art theory

Media Release: European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP)
“For the science and treatment of disorders of the brain”

Neuroscience study supports 200-year old art theory
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A pilot study from a group of Dutch scientists implies that being told that an image is an artwork automatically changes our response, both on a neural and behavioural level. This may mean that our brains automatically up or down-regulate emotional response according to the whether they think something should be understood at face value, or whether it should be interpreted as art. This tends to lends support to an over 200 year old theory of art, first put forward by the philosopher Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement.
Most people understand that we will show a different conscious emotional response to a work of fiction or art, than we will to an equivalent real-life image. Now a team from Erasmus University in Rotterdam has tested how the unconscious brain responds to art and other types of images.
In two related experiments, twenty-four student volunteers were asked to evaluate a series of picture while brain activity was measured via an EEG. Half of the pictures were pleasant and the other half unpleasant. They were either told that the pictures were works of art or photographs of real events. At the end of the trial they were asked to rate each image according to likeability and, attractiveness.
The researchers concentrated on a brain signal called the LPP (Late Positive Potential), which is a measurement of the level of electromagnetic activity of the cortex between 0.6 and 0.9 seconds after the appearance of a stimulus. They were able to show that the amplitude of this stimulus was much greater when participants had been told that the picture was real, as against when they were told it was a work of art. When questioned, works of art were also rated as being more likable than were real pictures.
“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” said lead researcher Noah van Dongen (Erasmus University, Rotterdam). “When we think we are not dealing with reality, our emotional response appears to be subdued on a neural level. This may be because of a tendency to ‘distance’ ourselves from the image, to be able to appreciate or scrutinize its shapes, colours, and composition instead of just its content. We know that our brains may have evolved with ‘hard-wired’ mechanisms that allow us to adjust our response to objects depending on the situation. What this work indicates, is that Kant’s two century old theory of aesthetics*, where he proposed that we need to emotionally distance ourselves from the artwork in order to be able to properly appreciate it, might have a neurological basis and that art could useful in our quest to understand our brain, emotions, and maybe our cognition.”
In a second experiment, the research group added a third condition. Again, twenty-four student volunteers judged pleasant and unpleasant pictures, only this time they were presented as pictures of real events, works of art, and scenes from movies or documentaries. The neurological effect on emotional response vanished with the added third condition.
Noah van Dongen said “The results of this modified experiment indicate that the effect of context is more complex than it might seem. It might be that too much or too ambiguous information reduces the neurological effect. We are just beginning to understand our automatic emotion regulation and more research is necessary to bring its nuances to light.”
* Kant set out this theory in Critique of Judgement, published in 1790
See notes for funding, abstract, and other details. Part of this work has been published in the journal Brain and Cognition.

Notes for Editors
Please mention the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in any stories which result from this press release.

Noah N.N. van Dongen
ECNP Press Officer, Tom Parkhill tel +39 349 238 8191 (Italy)

The European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP)
The ECNP is an independent scientific association dedicated to the science and treatment of disorders of the brain. It is the largest non-institutional supporter of applied and translational neuroscience research and education in Europe. Website:
The annual ECNP Congress takes place from 17th to 20th September in Vienna. It is Europe’s premier scientific meeting for disease-oriented brain research, annually attracting between 4,000 and 6,000 neuroscientists, psychiatrists, neurologists and psychologists from around the world. Congress website:

Congress Abstract P.1.i.014 Implicit emotion regulation while viewing fictive and real pictures: event related potential evidence in response to affective pictures
N. Van Dongen1 J.W. Van Strien2 K. Dijkstra2 1Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands 2Erasmus University, Department of Psychology- Education and Child Studies, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Purpose of the study: Studies on event related potentials (ERPs) in the electroencephalogram (EEG) show that individuals are not only capable of voluntary emotion regulation via reassessment of situations (e.g. reinterpreting negative images in neutral terms) [1], they also regulate their emotions automatically and implicitly as a result of context (e.g. when a situation is described as fictitious or real prior to stimuli presentation) [2]. This is indicated by attenuation of the Late Positive Potential (LPP), an ERP that occurs 600–900 ms after stimulus presentation [3]. In the current ERP study, we investigated the possibility of nuances in implicit emotion regulation by measuring responses to affective pictures presented as depictions of real events, general fictitious events (i.e. pictures of staged situations), and artworks, a special type of fictitious pictures.
Methods: Participants performed an image evaluation task while EEG activity was recorded. Each participant evaluated 120 pictures from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) [4]. Half of the pictures had low valence and high arousal, the other half high valence and high arousal. The pictures were divided equally among three contextual conditions: fictitious, art, and real. The order of conditions, the pictures within conditions, and the order of the pictures within conditions were randomized. Each condition started with a short description consisting of (1) the type of pictures in the condition (i.e. pictures of true events, staged events, or realistic paintings), and (2) where the pictures were from (i.e. archives, instruction videos, or museum collections). Each trial consisted of a fixation cross (2250–2750 ms), a stimulus (3000 ms), another fixation cross (1000 ms), and a rating of the picture on likability (9-point likert scale), and arousal and valence (diagrams of the self-assessment manikin).
Results: Preliminary data (N = 24; mean age 21.1) of the art context versus the real context condition were analyzed using an analysis of variance (ANOVA) with LPP amplitude as outcome measure. The results show a significant context effect, with larger LPP amplitudes for pictures in the real context than the art context [F(1,23) = 4.58, p = 0.043, ηp2 = 0.17]. Notably, pictures presented as artworks were rated higher on likability than pictures of real events [F(1,22) = 1.76, p = 0.044, ηp2 = 0.17] and no interaction between emotion valence category and context was found [F(1,23) = 0.002, p = 0.966, ηp2 = 0.00).
Conclusions: The results of the preliminary data indicate that a special fictitious context can cause an automatic decreased emotional response (i.e. LPP attenuation) to both negative and positive affective pictures, suggesting that people respond less emotionally to both positive and negative affective images when presented as works of art. Although the LPP of artwork context pictures is attenuated, pictures presented as artworks do receive a higher liking rating. This may be explained by people's tendency to pay more attention to structural and stylistic properties in artworks [5], driving the liking, instead of content in real images, driving the emotion.
[1] Hajcak, G., Nieuwenhuis, S., 2006. Reappraisal modulates the electrocortical response to unpleasant pictures. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 6(4), 291–7.
[2] Mocaiber, I., Pereira, M.G., Erthal, F.S., Machado-Pinheiro, W., David, I.A., Cagy, M., Volchan, E., de Oliveira, L., 2010. Fact or fiction? An event-related potential study of implicit emotion regulation. Neuroscience Letters, 476(2), 84–88.
[3] Cuthbert, B.N., Schupp, H.T., Bradley, M.M., Birbaumer, N., Lang, P.J., 2000. Brain potentials in affective picture processing: covariation with autonomic arousal and affective report. Biological Psychology, 52(2), 95–111.
[4] Lang, P.J., Bradley, M.M., Cuthbert, B.N., 2005. International affective picture sysytem (IAPS): Digitized photographs, instruction manual and affective ratings. Technical report A-6, University of Florida, Gainsville, FL.
[5] Cupchik, G.C., Vartanian, O., Crawley, A., Mikulis, D.J., 2009. Viewing artworks: Contributions of cognitive control and perceptual facilitation to aesthetic experience. Brain and Cognition, 70(1), 84–91. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2009.01.003.
Funding: Research funded by Erasmus University Rotterdam as part of Master thesis research at the Department of Psychology, Education, and Child Studies
NOTE: Part of this work has been published in the journal Brain and Cognition 107 (2016), 48–54, Implicit emotion regulation in the context of viewing artworks: ERP evidence in response to pleasant and unpleasant pictures. Noah N.N. Van Dongen et al, doi 0.1016/j.bandc.2016.06.003.