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Mona Lisa’s smile decoded: science says she’s happy

The subject of centuries of scrutiny and debate, Mona Lisa's famous smile is routinely described as ambiguous. But is it really that hard to read?

Mona Lisa's smile decoded: science says she's happy
Photo: AFP

Apparently not.

In an unusual trial, close to 100 percent of people described her expression as unequivocally “happy”, researchers revealed on Friday.

“We really were astonished,” neuroscientist Juergen Kornmeier of the University of Freiburg in Germany, who co-authored the study, told AFP.

Kornmeier and a team used what is arguably the most famous artwork in the world in a study of factors that influence how humans judge visual cues such as facial expressions.

Known as La Gioconda in Italian, the Mona Lisa is often held up as a symbol of emotional enigma.

The portrait appears to many to be smiling sweetly at first, only to adopt a mocking sneer or sad stare the longer you look.

Using a black and white copy of the early 16th century masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, a team manipulated the model's mouth corners slightly up and down to create eight altered images – four marginally but progressively “happier”, and four “sadder” Mona Lisas.

A block of nine images were shown to 12 trial participants 30 times.

In every showing, for which the pictures were randomly reshuffled, participants had to describe each of the nine images as happy or sad.

“Given the descriptions from art and art history, we thought that the original would be the most ambiguous,” Kornmeier said.

Instead, “to our great astonishment, we found that Da Vinci's original was… perceived as happy” in 97 percent of cases.

 All in the context

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

In this test, the original was still described as happy, but participants' reading of the other images changed.

“They were perceived a little sadder” than in the first experiment, said Kornmeier.

The findings confirm that “we don't have an absolute fixed scale of happiness and sadness in our brain” – and that a lot depends on context, the researcher explained.

“Our brain manages to very, very quickly scan the field. We notice the total range, and then we adapt our estimates” using our memory of previous sensory experiences, he said.

Understanding this process may be useful in the study of psychiatric disorders, said Kornmeier.

Affected people can have hallucinations, seeing things that others do not, which may be the result of a misalignment between the brain's processing of sensory input, and perceptual memory.

A next step will be to do the same experiment with psychiatric patients.

Another interesting discovery was that people were quicker to identify happier Mona Lisas than sad ones.

This suggested “there may be a slight preference… in human beings for happiness, said Kornmeier.

As for the masterpiece itself, the team believe their work has finally settled a centuries-old question.

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

By Mariėtte Le Roux

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DA VINCI

Da Vinci’s ‘claw hand’ left him unable to hold palette: researchers

Leonardo da Vinci may have suffered traumatic nerve damage that left him with a "claw hand", impairing his ability to paint in later life, a new study said.

Da Vinci's 'claw hand' left him unable to hold palette: researchers
A statue of Leonardo da Vinci by done by Italian sculpture Pietro Magni. Photo: Miguel Medina / AFP
The damage could have been the result of a fainting episode, according to Italian research published Friday in the British Royal Society of Medicine journal.
 
Reconstructive surgeon David Lazzeri and neurologist Carlo Rossi said the handicap prevented the Renaissance artist from even holding his palette in his right hand, though he continued to draw with his left.
   
Many researchers have assumed that the palsy of his right hand stemmed from a stroke or Dupuytren's contracture, a condition that causes fingers to become permanently bent.
 
 
The two scientists reached their finding by studying a chalk drawing of da Vinci attributed to the 16th-century Lombard artist Giovanni Ambrogio Figino.
   
The picture shows the great Italian polymath with his right hand emerging from his clothing, as if he were wearing a sling, with the fingers contracted.
 
“Rather than depicting the typical clenched hand seen in post-stroke muscular spasticity, the picture suggests an alternative diagnosis such as ulnar palsy, commonly known as claw hand,” Lazzeri said in the report.
 
 A chalk drawing of da Vinci attributed to the 16th-century Lombard artist Giovanni Ambrogio Figino shows his arm in a sling. Photo: Museum of Gallerie Dell'Accademia, Venice
 
For the Italian experts, Leonardo's physical weakness was not accompanied by any cognitive decline.
   
But according to Lazzeri, it may explain “why he left numerous paintings incomplete” even including his most famous, the Mona Lisa, during the last five years of his career as a painter “while he continued teaching and drawing”.
   
According to another study, carried out by Florence Museum researchers and published last month, Leonardo was completely ambidextrous — capable of writing, drawing and painting as well with his left hand as his right.
   
The findings were based on analysis of his earliest work. French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella on Thursday kicked off commemorations to mark 500 years since da Vinci died in France.
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