Rembrandt and your brain

Went with my lovely wife today to see a terrific exhibit at the NC Museum of Art on Rembrandt.  A major theme of the exhibit was the ongoing effort to determine actual Rembrandt’s from those attributed to him that were actually painted by others.

How timely then, that I had just read this latest Jonah Lehrer piece on the neuroscience of real vs “fake” art:

While a painting by celebrated Rembrandt pupil William Drost might sell for a few hundred thousand dollars — his best canvases can go for a couple million — a genuine Rembrandt is worth many times more. In 2009, a lesser Rembrandt portrait sold for $33 million.

What accounts for this staggering difference in value? One possibility, of course, is that there’s something inherently special about a real Rembrandt, that the Dutch painter filled his art with discernible flourishes that can be detected by observers. Although we might not be able to explain these minor differences, we still appreciate them at an unconscious level, which is why we hang Rembrandts in the Met and consign his imitators to the basement. Great art is not an accident.

The second possibility is that our aesthetic judgements are really complicated. While Rembrandt was an astonishingly talented artist, our response to his art is conditioned by all sorts of variables that have nothing to do with oil paint. Many of these variables are capable of distorting our perceptions, so that we imagine differences that don’t actually exist; the verdict of art history warps what we see. The power of a Rembrandt, in other words, is inseparable from the fact that it’s a Rembrandt. [emphasis mine] The man is a potent brand.

So neuroscientists did experiments where subjects looked at actual vs. “school of Rembrandt” works.  Not surprisingly, there was no difference in brain response (under fMRI).  Additionally:

However, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.

Looking at the works in the gallery I think I could see what the differences were in many of the paintings as to why they were not authentic.  But maybe I was just fooling myself.  Many of these “school of Rembrandt” paintings have been thought to be “genuine” Rembrandt’s by actual art experts for hundreds of years.  The larger point being, they were mostly all brilliant works of art, regardless of who actually painted them.  Some were just more brilliant than others.  I have to admit most of my favorites were actual Rembrandt’s.  Were they actually better, or did my brain just tell me so?  Kim and I actually discussed how this was much like how people perceive wine based on the costs— as Leher himself points out later in the article.

Short version: you should appreciate art (and wine) simply for what it is.  Unfortunately, when you have more information, your brain won’t let you.

[Oh, almost forgot.  One really cool thing was that the museum let you download a podcast of the audio tour that you usually have to pay $5 for.  I just took my Ipod– after downloading in advance– and was able to listen at the 2x speed.  Very cool.]

Me the the 2012 Elections

Wasn’t planning on this particular bit of self-promotion, but I recorded this conversation about the elections last week and a couple people have emailed to say they enjoyed.  You may, too.  It’s my thoughts on the elections as of Monday last week.

Photo of the day

Former exemplary student and friend of the blog, Zack H., shares this awesome photo of himself and both Newt and Calista:

I was touring George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate in Northern Virginia this past weekend, which was surprising a ton of fun.  Anyway, after spending about 3 hrs. seeing the grounds, the house, and Washington’s fake teeth on display, my friends and I exited to the gift shop where I suddenly saw a line of about 10 people.  The line parted, and I realized that Newt Gingrich, about two weeks away from the Iowa caucus, is setting there at a book signing for his wife’s children’s book in Virginia (an elephant that travels through American history, you know teaching the kids exceptionalism…).  I bought the book ($15!) and got them both to sign it to my parents for Christmas and got this picture with them. (Best gag gift ever!)

1) I love that there were only 10 people in line.

2) Mt. Vernon is a really awesome place to visit.  I made many a visit as I grew up not far away.  I feel like a pretty bad parent for not taking my kids there yet.

3) The book is quite well-reviewed on Amazon— grab yourself a copy.

The real problem with fact-checking

I couldn’t remember if I’ve posted before on how frustrated I am with the simplistic (and none-too-bright) worldview of most fact-checking articles.  Good for me!!  I have.   That said, Politifact’s absurd decision to name the Democrats calling Ryan’s plan to end Medicare as we know it a “plan to end Medicare” as the “lie of the year” has brought about a lot of excellent commentary on the problem with fact checking stories, websites, etc.   First, though, you should read Yglesias‘ takedown of Politifact (I love his phrase that it “beclowns itself”).  That said, I think TNR’s Alex McGillis had the most worthwhile commentary on this (long quote, but it’s spot on, read it all):

The truth of the matter is, fact-checkers wouldn’t be needed if all of us journalists were more able, willing and empowered to do our jobs: to vet and explain political claims as they were being made. But the media lives in such abject terror of the perception of bias that it has, in a sense, decided to outsource a big part of its job: telling readers what the real deal is. This has resulted in a strange sort of division of labor, bordering on ghettoization — all of these reporters over here will record what’s being said by politicians, while this one guy, or one organization, over here with the fact-checker cap on will tell you whether it’s true. It’s like having a newsroom full of color commentators to describe the action but only one ref or umpire to make all the calls. The appeal is clear: it seeks to protect the reporters from charges of bias while giving the work of political judgment and analysis a scientific aura. And, let’s be honest, it also makes the job easier for reporters who can’t be bothered to learn enough about the facts of the matter at hand to judge the issue themselves.

But it’s an unfortunate trend nonetheless. It sells short the reporters who do know the facts on the issues they cover, who would be in a position to infuse their coverage with more analysis and insight (thereby making it more vital and readable) if they were less shackled by constraints. And, as we are reminded today, it invests far too much weight and significance in a handful of arbiters who, every once in a while, will really blow a big call.

Coming from an entirely different perspective, I really liked Ezra’s comments as well:

Steve BenenPaul Krugman, and others speculate that PolitiFact’s decision to choose a claim associated with Democrats as ‘Lie of the Year’ was a tacit answer to these attacks. ‘See? We’re not liberal! We’re defending Paul Ryan!’ If they had chosen one of their other Lie of the Year contenders — for instance, the claim that the stimulus created “zero” jobs — they might have lost the right forever.

And that, ultimately, is the problem with the fact checker model. They have no actual power, so their only influence comes from the public’s sense of their legitimacy. And about half of the public leans towards one party and about half of the public leans toward the other. That means PolitiFact and these other outlets need to find some uneasy balance between the parties, too. But that just means the parties will have plenty of opportunities to decide that these are hackish, partisan operations. Conservatives got there a few weeks ago, and now liberals are following.

The likely result is that these outlets will be listened to when one side or the other finds it convenient and ignored otherwise. Rather than policing the political discourse, they’ll just become one more bludgeon within it.

Of course, part of the problem lies in the fact that Republicans seem lie more and lie more egregiously, but the fact check organizations cannot let themselves be seen as taking sides.  The Republicans failure to actually live in the reality-based world ends up actually getting better treatment in fact check stories than it deserves.  [Not that Democrats aren’t guilty of lying for political gain, but compare the big “lie” as deconstructed by Yglesias, as compared to the common GOP claims that completely reject established science and economics.]

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