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Riddle of Mona Lisa's smile: the facial expressions should be clear


Happy or sad? Mona Lisa's smile is clearer than expected
Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" is perhaps the most famous painting in the world. It was created over 500 years ago. And the discussion about what the woman's smile on the oil painting means is almost as long: is she sad or happy? German researchers believe that their facial expressions are clearer than expected.

Probably the most famous painting in the world
The oil painting "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci is probably the most famous picture in the world. No other masterpiece has as many myths as the beauty of the Italian painter. There is a lot of discussion about the smile of women: is it an expression of sadness or happiness? Researchers from Germany now report that the facial expressions of the painted woman are clearer than expected.

Ambiguous facial expression
For a long time, the supposedly ambiguous facial expression of the Mona Lisa was considered a major reason for the enormous attraction of the painting by the Italian artist. Is the painting happy or sad?

Scientists from the University Hospital Freiburg, the Institute of Psychology at the University of Freiburg and the Freiburg Institute for Borderlands of Psychology and Psycho-Hygiene (IGPP) have now found in a study that test subjects perceive the Mona Lisa as happy in almost 100 percent of the cases.

As stated in a message from the university clinic, they also found that the emotional assessment of the images depends on which other image variants have been shown so far.

Mona Lisa is almost always perceived as happy
In order to arrive at the results, the researchers presented the test subjects with the original painting and eight picture variants, on which the corners of the mouth of the Mona Lisa were shifted up or down, resulting in a sadder or happier facial expression.

“It was a big surprise for us that the original Mona Lisa is almost always perceived as happy. This contradicts the common opinion of art history, ”said PD Dr. Jürgen Kornmeier, head of the Perception and Cognition research group at the Freiburg IGPP and scientist at the Ophthalmology Clinic of the University Medical Center Freiburg.

The study results were recently published in the scientific reports.

Happy faces are recognized faster
For the study, the scientists initially produced eight Mona Lisa variants, which differed only in a gradual change in the curvature of the mouth.

Then the twelve subjects were presented with the original as well as four pictures with sad and cheerful facial expressions in random order. At the touch of a button, the test subjects indicated for each picture whether they perceived it as happy or sad, and then how confident they were in their answer.

The sum of the answers resulted in a percentage value on a scale from sad to happy and a value for the security of your decision.

As the message says, in almost 100 percent of the cases the original and all the more positive variants were perceived as happy. The test subjects recognized happy facial expressions faster than sad ones. "It seems like we have a filter for positive facial expressions in our brain," said Dr. Kornmeier.

Perception adapts to the environment
In another experiment, the researchers retained the variant with the least mouth curvature as the saddest variant.

When they then presented the Mona Lisa original as the happiest variant and seven intermediate variants - three of which had already been shown in the first experiment - they were amazed to find that the subjects tended to display those image variants that had already been shown in the first experiment perceived as sadder.

"The data show that our perception, such as whether a face is sad or happy, is not absolute, but adapts surprisingly quickly to the environment," said Dr. Kornmeier.

Brain has to construct an image of the world
According to the information, the study is part of a larger project by Dr. Kornmeier and Prof. Tebartz van Elst at the University Medical Center Freiburg, in which perception processes are researched.

"With our senses, we can only absorb a very limited part of the information from our environment, for example because an object is partially covered or poorly lit," explained Dr. Kornmeier.

"The brain then has to construct an image of the world that comes closest to reality from the incomplete and often ambiguous information".

The Freiburg researchers are investigating how these construction processes work in healthy people and whether they have changed in people with mental illnesses, such as delusions. (ad)

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