When it comes to high art, almost nobody can tell the difference between an original and a good copy. Even so, we overwhelmingly prefer the original. Oxford scientists hooked up 14 volunteers to a functional MRI, and then showed them real and fake Rembrandts. The researchers would then inform the subjects whether they were looking at an original or a fake.
Regardless of what the subjects were actually looking at, merely being told they were looking at the original lit up the pleasure centers in their brains. Just believing the painting was an original was enough to make people favor it. And on the other side, just believing the painting was a fake was enough to send the brain into overdrive, searching for reasons to believe it’s inferior to the original.
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.
It turns out that when it comes to art, we don’t really know what we like. A lot more than just visual appeal goes into determining what we fancy.