18 December, 2005


A study finds that the renowned Dutch painter’s portraits may both capture and shed light on some principles of modern brain science

Oct. 13, 2005 Special to World Science

The renowned 17th-century painter Rembrandt unwittingly captured some very modern principles of brain science in his portraits, psychologists have found.

The paintings, they add, may also help provide surprising insights into how the brain governs emotion differently in males and females.

The researchers, James A. Schirillo and Melissa A. Fox of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., found a curious pattern in the paintings. Among female portraits, 74 percent of the faces are turned so that the left cheek faces the viewer. But male faces display the precise opposite pattern: 74 percent are turned so that their right cheek faces the viewer.

In a way, this makes sense, Schirillo and Fox said. The right and left sides of the face express emotion differently because strong emotion falls chiefly under the control of one side of the brain—the right.

“Rembrandt perhaps instinctively saw these differences in the facial musculature, although he certainly did not know” about the brain structures responsible, write Fox and Schirillo in a paper to appear in the art journal Leonardo. A version of the paper was also published in the August issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

But while the connection between the brain research and the portraits may seem obvious at first glance, Fox and Schirillo noted, the link isn’t simple.

Each side of the brain governs the opposite side of the body. So the fact that the right brain controls strong emotions suggests the left side of the face would express more emotions. Some studies have confirmed this.

Thus, it might seem logical for artists—who tend to want to make an emotional impact—to prefer showing the left side of the face. Past research supports this notion as well. A 1973 survey of Western European portraits from the past 500 years found that 60 percent had their subjects posed with the left side of their face turned toward the viewer; a later survey found similar trends dating back to the Stone Age.

But Rembrandt’s approach was in some ways radically different from this average.

With females, he followed the same tendency as other artists, to a more extreme degree. Yet with males, it seems he took the opposite approach.

What does this mean? Did he want to highlight the emotion in his females, and suppress it in the males?

To explore the issue, Schirillo and Fox surveyed the reactions of 73 college students to male and female Rembrandt portraits. The researchers reasoned that these reactions might provide insights into what kinds of emotions the paintings conveyed, and how different head positions might influence these.

The results were surprising. The students rated the females portrayed in the paintings as more “approachable” in general than males, whom they described more often as the sorts of people they would rather avoid.

The ratings also varied depending on the orientation of the painted subject.

For female subjects, the viewers rated subjects with their left, or “emotional,” cheeks facing outward as more approachable.

Yet remarkably, “male portraits produced the exact opposite pattern of results,” Schirillo and Fox wrote. If their left cheeks faced outward, viewers tended to rate them as even less approachable than the other males—who already were seen as less approachable, as a group, than the females.

Thus the overall trend, Schirillo and Fox wrote, was that viewers liked the “emotional” side of women’s faces, but shied away from the “emotional” side of men’s faces. Rembrandt’s decision to hide that side of men’s faces most of the time may have actually minimized their unpleasantness.

But why would the emotional side of males be something to avoid? Possibly because strong emotion in males contains a dose of aggression lacking in females, Fox and Schirillo speculated. Thus people might prefer the less emotional side of men’s faces because it’s also the “non-aggressive side.”

It’s also possible that the male emotional side repels viewers because of a stereotype that emotion signifies weakness in males, Schirillo said. However, he added that he thinks the first explanation more likely, because strong emotions in males often contain an aggressive, dominance-seeking component.

Whether a poser faces left or right isn’t always a painter’s decision. Often the sitters themselves decide, Schirillo and Fox noted. They, too, may instinctively prefer to show their left side. This may also explain the preponderance of this orientation in the artistic record.

One notable finding, they added, was that a 1999 study of portraits of scientists from the Royal Society in the U.K. bucked the overall trend. The scientists were no more prone to show their left side than their right. This might reflect scientists’ wish to “conceal negative emotions,” of signs of emotion that might detract from an image of calm, rational neutrality, Schirillo and Fox wrote.

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