The Mona Lisa Has Finally Been Deciphered

by Georgina Lawton
The portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known as the Mona Lisa or La Giocon...

One of the world's most famous paintings, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa has intrigued and perplexed scholars and art fans across the world for centuries. The big question: Is the Mona Lisa smiling? Many have wondered, but no one has been able to offer a definitive answer because the — until now that is. Thanks to new and exciting research, the previously elusive expression on the Monal Lisa's face has finally been deciphered.

As the Louvre museum in Paris, which currently houses the work of art, writes on its website, the history of the Mona Lisa is shrouded in mystery (much like the expression on her face). No one really knows for sure the identity of the subject featured in the painting Leonardo worked on, or who it was commissioned by; however, the most widely accepted theory posits that the painting was started in Florence around 1503 and is thought to be of Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine cloth merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. (That's where the painting's lesser-known alternative title, La Gioconda, comes from). However, notes the museum's website, the painting never seems to have made it to the person who commissioned it in the first place. Instead, we believe that Leonardo took the painting to France; then, when the artist died, it entered the collection of King François I.

Now, after years of speculation about the Mona Lisa's ambiguous facial expression, researchers at the Medical Center — University of Freiburg, the Institute of Psychology of the University of Freiburg and the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health (IGPP) in Freiburg may have cracked the mystery once and for all. According to the study, viewers apparently have a huge variety of ways they perceive the painting — so, really, the Mona Lisa's face could be doing whatever you think it is. The researchers did find, though, that nearly all their study participants perceive Mona Lisa as happy.

The scientists, led by Dr. Juergen Kornmeier of the University of Freiburg in Germany and his colleague, Dr. Ludger Tebartz van Elst, chief senior physician at the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy of the Medical Center — University of Freiburg, believe this experiment shows that we're predisposed to see happy expressions, even when they don't exist. In their tests, they began by creating eight versions of the Mona Lisa that differed in gradual changes to the curvature of her mouth: Four of them appeared slightly “happier” than the original, and four appeared slightly “sadder."

These eight images plus the original painting were presented presented in a random order to the participants. 12 participants were asked to rate the nine photos 30 times to form a percentage on a scale from sad to happy, as well as provide a rating for the certainty of their responses. The researchers found that in 97 percent of the cases, the original painting and all of the ones in which the edges of the Mona Lisa's mouth were turned up were perceived as happy.

What's more, those involved in the study were able to identify happy faces more quickly and with more certainty than sad faces. Dr. Kornmeier noted according to Science Daily, "It appears as if our brain is biased to positive facial expressions."

Interestingly, in a second experiment, the researchers put together a new set of nine images: The "happiest" one was the original painting; the "saddest" was the image from the first experiment with the least mouth curvature; and seven intermediary images filled in everything between those two extremes. The study subjects determined that the various versions of the image were sadder when the entire range of images they had been shown overall had sadder facial expressions. "The data show that our perception, for instance of whether something is sad or happy, is not absolute but adapts to the environment with astonishing speed," said Dr. Kornmeier. "We don’t have an absolute fixed scale of happiness and sadness in our brain."

This research bears similar results to that of an unrelated 2002 study from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and conducted by psychologist Seth Pollak who analyzed the emotional reactions of children who had suffered abuse. Two groups of children — one comprised of children who had been abused, and one which comprised of children who had not — were asked to label the emotions of various faces shown to them based on how they perceived them. The children who had suffered would nearly always identify faces as being “angry” when they were actually fearful or sad. The researchers concluded that our ability to perceive basic emotions is not innate; rather, individual experience can alter the way we see emotions.