On March 16th, 2017 we learned about

Among manipulated mouths, study participants see happiness in the Mona Lisa’s smile

It’s fairly safe to say that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. The image of a woman sitting in front of a distant landscape isn’t conceptually unique, but the details of its execution have made the the subject of great, enduring fascination with artists, historians and even engineers since it was painted. Mysteries abound, with one of the weirder questions apparently focused on one of the central points of the painting— the woman’s smile. Interpretations of the smile cover a wide range of emotions, but a new study involving digital manipulation and detailed response tracking seems to have found new consensus about what is being portrayed. She’s smiling because she’s happy.

Seeing emotion on a spectrum

It’s easy to scoff at such a finding, but there’s more to it than simply pointing to a smile and declaring “happiness.” Closer examination shows a number oddities in the subject’s face, from a lack of eyebrows to an ambiguous tension in the cheeks that make identifying a “true smile” difficult. This has prompted speculation about the the portrait possibly portraying a smirk, hidden sadness, or even… disdain? It’s a lot to unpack, but this latest study tried to tease out what people saw in the Mona Lisa’s face by changing it.

Participants were shown a black and white reproduction of the original painting, as well as eight variations that had subtle changes to the mouth. Some variations were more upturned, and rated as ‘happier,’ while others were more downturned and thus, ‘sadder.’ When compared to this wider range of expressions, the original was still identified as happy 97% of the time. To see how much context may change things, participants were also asked to interpret eight variations that were nearly all on the “sad” side of the emotional spectrum, with the original painting being the most positive option. Again, the original was rated as happy, and in the process a clue was revealed that may help explain people’s reactions.

Slower to see sorrow

When rating the emotional content of each face, people routinely responded faster to happier expressions. While the overall context did seem to shape people’s opinions, possibly shifting the center of what it meant to appear happy, this timing may indicate that there is a neurological bias that anchors us around happy faces. Whether or not this settles anything for the art community isn’t clear, but researchers want to continue the experiments with people with autism and other psychological disorders to see if there’s any difference in how the faces are interpreted. The suspicion is that psychological disorders may involve a gap between sensory input and the ability to properly contextualize that information. Or maybe everyone is just distracted by the lack of eyebrows.

Source: 'Mona Lisa' Is Smiling, Really by Laura Geggel, Live Science

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