We can all picture the Mona Lisa smile.
Jürgen Kornmeier, senior researcher at the University of Freiburg, looks into whether she’s smiling after all.
Is The Mona Lisa Smiling?
Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait of Mona Lisa has been the most discussed
artwork ever. Particular interest has been given to Mona Lisa’s enigmatic
expression: is she happy or sad?
We found that she is
unequivocally happy. We created eight Mona Lisa variants, that differed only in
gradual changes to the curvature of her mouth. Then, we presented the original,
four versions with a sadder face and four with a happier face in random order.
The participants first indicated for each variant whether Mona Lisa’s emotional
face expression was happy or sad by pressing different keys and then rated how
certain they were of their response. The responses were used to calculate a
percentage on a scale from sad to happy and a rating for the certainty of the
The original and all of the more positive versions were perceived as happy in
nearly 100 percent of the cases. The participants identified happy faces more
quickly and with a higher degree of certainty than sad faces.
In a second experiment, we kept the image with the least mouth curvature as the
saddest version, took the original Mona Lisa as the happiest version, and chose
seven intermediate versions, three of them from the first experiment.
Surprisingly, the same participants now changed their perceptual judgment: the
variants, already seen in the previous experiment, were now perceived as overall
‘happier’. Our results indicate that our scale of happiness is not absolute but
adapts to the environment with astonishing speed.
The study is part of a larger project
on how healthy people disambiguate ambiguous visual input during
perception and whether this process is different in people with autism and