Emotion Recognition and Da Vinci

Is the Mona Lisa smiling?

There seems to be little doubt that we can learn a great deal through artwork, and a recent study on Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa painting can help shed light on our facial expression recognition skills, as well.

This painting has long intrigued viewers, presenting an ambiguous facial expression that looks like a smile, despite a slight downturn in the mouth. A group of researchers at the University of Freiburg’s Medical Center sought to explore this issue, examining what the average person sees when they examine Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

Surprisingly, in almost every case, test subjects perceived an expression of happiness in the stately portrait. While many of us certainly do see the Mona Lisa as happy, what is truly surprising is the fact that this conclusion was shared by almost every single person studied. This sort of consensus is rare in scientific research.

In addition, the researchers explored some nuances of emotional recognition by presenting subjects with edited versions of the portrait, with varied expressions emphasizing either happiness or sadness. Essentially, they digitally altered the Mona Lisa’s mouth to craft four versions that had progressively more pronounced smiles and four that presented contrarily sad expressions.

The experiment proceeded in two parts. The first component simply involved exposing a series of test subjects to a copy of the Mona Lisa and the eight digitally edited versions in random orders. Subjects were asked to press buttons signifying whether the image was happy or sad, as well as reporting their level of confidence in this judgment.

The results were surprising. Not only were the original and happier versions invariably identified as smiles, but the participants were also able to more effectively judge these happy visages than the sad varieties. There were both more confident that what they saw was happiness and made those determinations more quickly than they did for the sad variations.

Emanuela Liaci, a PhD student and first author of the report, explained this result, saying: “It appears as if our brain is biased to positive facial expressions.”

While art critics have historically been divided on whether the Mona Lisa is smiling, a 2015 analysis of Da Vinci’s work found that he had employed a similarly ambiguous expression in at least one other painting. In both cases, a close-up of the painting reveals an uncertain expression, but viewing the painting with less focus or from a greater distance emphasized the smile.

This examination suggests that Da Vinci intended for viewers to see a smile in the Mona Lisa’s face but also to create doubt as to whether she was smiling. Could this intentional uncertainty be a reflection of the often ambiguous expressions that real people make? This would make sense, given the role of empathy that many artists see in their work.

Humintell is certainly excited to see more of this sort of research!

For more information on reading ambiguous expressions, check out our work here and here!

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