A study has been conducted recently at the University of Oxford to establish whether people respond differently to works of art when they have been told that they are fakes.
The study brings out the idea that our response to something is heavily influenced by the information we have been given about it.
Subjects taking part in the experiments had their brains scanned whilst viewing the paintings. When the subjects were told that they were viewing imitations, their brain activity was said to reflect suspicion and doubt, rather than enjoyment and pleasure.
The subjects experienced a different type of response to the very same painting they had been looking at up until that point, even though they hadn’t been able to tell the difference prior to that information being received.
Clearly this study has wider implications beyond paintings. How we respond to paintings, as a consequence of the information we receive, may also reflect how we respond to monuments, symbols, stories and songs, and suggests that there is an element of irrationality in how we see, interpret and respond to such things.
To be told that a particular song is expressive of a certain political, nationalistic or religious preference, for example, when in fact it may simply be an innocent folk song, seems to denigrate that song immediately (and others similar to it) in the public consciousness.
The particular way in which objects, stories or songs figure in our thinking is shaped by the way in which they have been introduced to us. The emotional response they tend to elicit is influenced by the information we have been given.
And the strength and impact of ‘suggestibility’ should not be underestimated here.
To be informed by individuals who are deemed to be in positions of knowledge or authority that certain songs are rebellious and political, immoral or illicit, is to force an interpretation on them that may not actually reflect their original meaning or intention.
Yet it seems natural to accept such information as fact, just because it has come from what we have always been led to believe is a trustworthy source in society; and because, in some cases, it seems to have been reinforced by the fact that explicit references have been smuggled into the lines of some of these songs.
But there are times when we need to think about whether the source of the information, whether the authorities and assumed holders of knowledge, have been properly informed themselves, or indeed whether they have other agendas to push.
Of course, this is not to say that we should grant free air space to songs that glorify and celebrate terrorism, murder or bigotry.
It is simply to point out that there may have been times when we have been too hasty in our condemnation of honestly written folk songs, just because we have been given a particular interpretation of their intent.