For centuries, people have debated about the Mona Lisa, a 16th-century painting by Leonardo da Vinci. They wondered how to interpret the expression on the woman’s face. Some viewers say she is smiling but others think she looks sad. Some people even feel that the woman’s look, if viewed for a long time, changes from one of joy to one of sadness. Now science may have finally solved the riddle of Mona Lisa’s true emotion.
STUDYING AN ARTWORK
Neuroscientists (scientists that study the brain) at the University of Freiburg in Germany decided to test how viewers interpret the Mona Lisa’s expression. The scientists had to develop a creative way to conduct their experiment. That’s because the Mona Lisa is arguably the most recognizable painting in the world. People who had already seen the image might be biased (have already made up their mind a particular way).
First, the researchers created nine digital copies of the painting. Each had a small change to the woman’s smile. In each version, the scientists altered the famous mouth to turn it up or down at the corners in varying degrees. That made the Mona Lisa’s expression seem happier or sadder.
Next, the scientists showed the altered images—plus a copy of the original painting—to a group of people. The people recorded what emotion they saw in each image. To make sure a person’s responses stayed the same, the scientists showed the images to each viewer 30 times in random order.
A HAPPY OUTCOME
According to the study’s results, people perceive Leonardo’s Mona Lisato be smiling an overwhelming 97 percent of the time. The study revealed that people see the woman as joyful. It also shows how the human brain interprets emotion. These findings will have a long-term effect on the art world and the scientific community.