Being told that an image is an artwork automatically changes our response, both on a neural and behavioural level, according to a new study that provides support to an over 200 year old theory of art.

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, said researchers from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

This tends to lend support to an over 200 year old theory of art, first put forward by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, they said.

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, researchers have tested how the unconscious brain responds to art and other types of images.

Twenty-four student volunteers were asked to evaluate a series of pictures while brain activity was measured via an electroencephalogram (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 from Erasmus University.

"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 scrutinise 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," said van Dongen.

This work indicates 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, researchers said.