Scientist crack the code of Mona Lisa's smile

Cover of the special issue of the journal Human Evolution announcing the Leonardo Project

Cover of the special issue of the journal Human Evolution announcing the Leonardo Project

It is a mystery that has vexed the art world for centuries: Is Mona Lisa's famous smile happy?

As for the Mona Lisa, and her centuries of intrigue, the German team believes it has finally settles the question about her humour.

The Mona Lisa, as she has always appeared - happy!

In an unusual trial, close to 100 per cent of people described her expression as unequivocally "happy", researchers revealed last Friday.

People perceive her look as a smile, according to the survey conducted at University of Freiburg. The researchers did find, though, that almost all their study participants perceive Mona Lisa as happy.

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Arguably the world's most famous work of art was used by scientists to determine some of the factors used by humans in judging visual clues, such as facial expressions.

The original and all of the "positive" Mona Lisa images were perceived as "happy" nearly 100 percent of the time, the researchers found.

Despite the intangible sadness that imbues the face of "Mona Lisa", she is unquestionably smiling, a new small study suggests.

The team created eight altered images, four happier four sadder, and showed a block of nine portraits to 12 participants 30 times. For each time, the pictures were rearranged in a random order and the participants were supposed to express their feelings about the nine images whether they are happy or unhappy.

"They were perceived a little sadder" than in the first experiment, Kornmeier said. 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. Researchers now claim to have a definitive answer, she's smiling.

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A second phase of the experiment involved the original Mona Lisa with eight "sadder" versions, with even more nuanced differences in the tilt of the lips.

"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", says Dr. Kornmeier.

Instead, our brains scan the field of human expression, and alter our estimates accordingly. According to Kornmeier, the process may help the study of psychiatric disorders.

"There may be some ambiguity in another aspect", said Dr Kornmeier, but "not ambiguity in the sense of happy versus sad".

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