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We know Mona Lisa’s grinnin’ but we still don’t know why

Scientists in Amsterdam have decoded the emotions behind her enigmatic expression.

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by Zoe Weisman

Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous work, the “Mona Lisa,” has long been an icon of wonder, and has recently become the subject of scientific analysis. Scientists in Amsterdam have decoded the emotions behind her enigmatic expression. Dr. Nicu Sebe of the University of Amsterdam has been working in collaboration with scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, closely examining facial expressions in order to create an algorithm for human emotion, according to a December 2005 report on CNN.

The computer program breaks down the human condition into six universal feelings: anger, sadness, fear, happiness, surprise, and disgust, creating a formula for each emotion based on the angles that occur in lines between the eyes, nose, and mouth. An analysis of La Gioconda concluded that the sitter was “83 percent happy, 9 percent disgusted, 6 percent fearful, and 2 percent angry.”

While the popularity of da Vinci’s piece may be a result of the subject’s elusive expression, other scientists speculate that the enigmatic quality is due to the treatment of light within the painting. According to The Independent in London, Professor Margaret Livingston of Harvard University completed a study in 2003 showing that the Mona Lisa’s smile appears to mutate due to the way the eye wanders around the painting. When the smile is held in peripheral vision, the brain processes the information differently than when it is perceived straight on, through the center of the retina. The smile is composed almost entirely of a low spatial quality, which means it is seen the most clearly in peripheral vision. As the viewer studies the painting, her smile appears to move. Whether or not science can truly pinpoint the mystery behind da Vinci’s painting is still open for debate.

illustration by Dimitry Tetin


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