The Mona Lisa is often held up as a symbol of emotional enigma. The portrait appears to many to be smiling sweetly at first, only to adopt a mocking sneer or sad stare the longer you look.
German neuroscientist Juergen Kornmier of the University of Freiburg and a team recently used the most famous artwork in the world in a study of factors that influence how humans judge facial expressions.
In the first phase, the scientists used a black and white copy of the early 16th century masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, and manipulated the model’s mouth corners to create eight altered images – four marginally but progressively “happier”, and “sadder” Mona Lisas. A second experiment used original Mona Lisa with eight “sadder” versions.
Nearly everyone, who took part in the unusual trial, described Mona Lisa’s famous expression – the subject of centuries of scrutiny and debate – as unequivocally “happy”. In the first experiment, the scientists found that Da Vinci’s original was perceived as happy in 97% of cases. In the second test, the original was still described as happy. But, participants thought other images were a little sadder.
The findings confirm that humans don’t have an absolute fixed scale of happiness and sadness in the brain and that a lot depends on the context, explained the researchers. Understanding this process may be useful in the study of psychiatric disorders, said Kornmier.
The German neuroscientist also said that affected people could have hallucinations, seeing things that others do not, which might be the result of a misalignment between the brain’s processing of sensory inputs and perceptual memory.
Another interesting discovery was that people were quicker to identify happier Mona Lisa than the sad ones, suggesting that “there may be a slight preference in human beings for happiness”, they stressed.
Kornmier and his team believe that their work has finally settled a centuries-old question. Mona Lisa’s famous smile is routinely described as ambiguous. But is it really that hard to read? “There may be some ambiguity in another aspect, but not ambiguity in the sense of happy versus sad,” Kornmeier told the media.