Neuroscience of Mona Lisa's smile

The vacillating emotion some people see in Mona Lisa's smile is a mindtrick caused by different kinds of visual information going to our brains, according to researchers at the Institute of Neuroscience in Alicante, Spain. Apparently, there are different visual channels that deal with data about the size, clarity, brightness, and location of an object you're looking at. In the case of the Mona Lisa, what you see in her expression is determined by which channel is dominating at that moment. From New Scientist:
"Sometimes one channel wins over the other, and you see the smile, sometimes others take over and you don't see the smile," says Luis Martinez Otero, a neuroscientist at Institute of Neuroscience in Alicante, Spain, who conducted the study along with Diego Alonso Pablos...

So did Leonardo intend to sow so much confusion in the brains of viewers, not to mention scientists? Absolutely, Martinez Otero contends. "He wrote in one of his notebooks that he was trying to paint dynamic expressions because that's what he saw in the street."
"Mona Lisa's smile a mystery no more"


  1. I never understood why people are so fascinated by this painting. Maybe I’m missing part of my brain.

  2. apoxia, youre not alone, ive saw the real deal in paris a few years ago and to be honest i found the museum it was housed in to be far more impressive than that stamp sized smirk

    1. The fact that the Mona Lisa is the size of an index card was less impressive to me than the fact that she was so high up on the wall. You really need to bring a telescope.

  3. It’s fame stems a lot from the fact that it was stolen, just as much as who painted it. It’s fame spread the mystery of the smile and people, as a group, are drawn to fame and mystery.

  4. Hear, hear. I couldn’t even get near the thing when I visited the Louvre in 2000. The interesting part is that that museum is FULL of fascinating, famous art pieces, but I noticed a lot of people just scurry up to the Mona Lisa, take a pic/video, and then scurry off out of the museum. It’s like they were just ticking a box off the tourist scorecard.

    Since Dan Brown popularised the structure of the museum itself and the parquetry of the floor in that dreadful bloody book of his, I’d expect their focus to have shifted a little by now.

  5. The significance of the piece lies in the fact that it employs a then new kind of perspective, atmospheric perspective. The purpose of which is to create depth and sense of 3 dimensionality. Prior middle age artists attempted but didn’t quite succeed the technique and their work has a slightly flat quality. For example the mountains and people appear exactly the same size and side by side.

    There are other numerous attributes as well. Man and nature, etc.

  6. Uhm… Looking at the extracted smile above, I think the reason you sometimes see the smile and sometimes don’t is simply that she’s smiling on one side and not the other. (Try putting your hand over first one half of her lower face and then the other, or try her with the classic mirrored-half-face trick.)

  7. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who doesn’t get the Mona Lisa smile thing. It doesn’t even look that weird to me.

    Besides, it’s just a painting. “She” isn’t “smiling.” If I draw a picture of a koala with poop coming out of his eye, no one would go “What illness does this koala have to make poop come out of his eye?” They’d just go, “some idiot drew a koala with poop coming out of his eye.”

    But then again, perhaps I, too, am missing part of my brain.

  8. Yes, you are missing parts of your brains. I don’t know that it deserves to be the most famous painting of all time, but it’s definitely something special.

  9. its because it was so ahead of his time..the painting looks contemporary even today yet if you look at the art style back then its clearly nowhere near to this.
    he achieved the effect by darkening the corners of the mouth and the eyes, nose and every other particular landmark that defines the anatomy of a face.
    leaving all that in the shadow allowed him to have this subtle effect where your brain fills the missing parts subconsciously. artists have known this for centuries..thanks for catching up with us neuroscience!!

  10. It’s an early attempt at those 3D images: If you stare at the smile and relax your focus, you can see a dolphin (these things never work for me).

  11. Study your art history and the mystery of the Mona Lisa smile is easily solved:
    it is a smile that characteristically appears on the faces of Greek statues of the Archaic period (c. 650–480 bc).

  12. The only reason her smile is “mysterious” is the fact that she has No Eyebrows. Eyebrows tell you more about the persons emotional state then practically any other facial feature. Since she has no eyebrows her placid bored expression doesn’t register the same way other peoples expressions do. She is a nun sitting still for hours while some Italian homosexual paints her portrait, what kind of expression do you expect her to have?

  13. The reason everybody thinks this painting is so important?

    When DaVinci finished it, he didn’t give it to the patron who commissioned it. He carried it around with him and told everybody it was his best work ever.

    Also, how the hell big do people expect it to be? It’s not that small!

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