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One Of The Biggest Mysteries Of The Mona Lisa Has Just Been Solved


Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is probably the most famous painting ever. Its incredible detail, use of an aerial perspective and Lisa’s perpetual enigmatic expression have all been subject of debate for decades and have cemented the painting as a masterpiece of the Renaissance.

Last year, the BBC reported that there is a ‘hidden’ layer below what we know and love as Lisa, one that looks markedly different. However, it was not uncommon for painters to edit their works, especially as ones like the Mona Lisa were commissioned. It’s still interesting to see the outtakes of those paintings though.

Now it’s Lisa’s expression under scrutiny. A new study done by the University of Freiburg has determined that Lisa is almost always seen as happy, calling the general historian opinion into question.

In the study, the researchers presented participants with nine version of the Mona Lisa. Eight had gradual changes to the curvature of her mouth, four being happier and four sadder, plus the original painting as the ninth version. The participants were then given the images in random order and asked to rate them as happy or sad, and how certain they were of their response.

The original and all of the happier versions were rated as happy in nearly 100% of cases. Not only that, but the participants identified happy faces faster and with more certainty. “It appears as if our brain is biased to positive facial expressions,” says Emanuela Liaci, Dr. Kornmeiers PhD student and first author of the publication.

Another interesting finding of the study was in the second experiment. The researchers here kept the image with the least mouth curvature as the saddest version, the original as the happiest and chose seven intermediate versions, three from the first experiment. The researchers found that participants tended to perceive the various images as sadder when the range of images as a whole were sadder.

The original and all of the happier versions were rated as happy in nearly 100% of cases.

“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.

The study comes from a larger project on perceptual processes.”Our senses have only access to a limited part of the information from our environment, for instance because an object is partially hidden or poorly illuminated,” explains Dr. Kornmeier. “The brain then needs to use this restricted and often ambiguous sensory information to construct an image of the world that comes as close to reality as possible.”

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