The magical look of ‘Mona Lisa’ is a myth

Her gaze is not following you, scientists find, which makes the “Mona Lisa effect” is a misnomer.
(SuperStock/Getty Images)

It is generally known that the wife of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting seems to look back at the observers, to follow them with her eyes, no matter where they are in the room.

But this common knowledge, it turns out, is wrong. The eyes of the woman in the “Mona Lisa” does not follow the viewers.

A new study shows that the woman in the famous painting is actually looking to the outside in an angle that is 15.4 degrees to the observer’s right — also outside of the range that people normally perceive when they think that someone is looking right at you. In other words, said study author Gernot Horstmann, a perceptual psychologist at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, “They don’t look at you.” [Photos: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa’]

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This is somewhat ironic, because the whole phenomenon of a person’s gaze in a photograph or painting seems to follow that the viewer is called the “Mona Lisa effect.” That effect is absolutely real, Horstmann said. If a person is illustrated or photographed looking straight ahead, even people viewing the portrait of a corner will feel that they are being watched. As long as the angle of the person’s gaze is not more than about 5 degrees to both sides, the Mona Lisa effect.

This is important for the interaction between human and on-screen characters. If you want someone out on the right side of a room to feel that a person is on the screen looking at him or her, Horstmann said, you don’t cut the look of the character side — surprisingly, the run of an observer the feeling that the character is not looking for someone in the room. Instead, keep the gaze straight ahead.

Horstmann and his co-author, computer scientist Sebastian loth, also of the University of Bielefeld, were the study of the effect for the applications in the creation of artificial-intelligence avatars as Horstmann took a long look at the “Mona Lisa” and realized something.

“I thought: ‘Wait, she’s not looking at me,'” he said.

To make sure it was not just him, the researchers asked 24 people to view images of the “Mona Lisa” on a computer screen. She set a ruler between the viewer and the screen and asked the participants to note which number on the ruler intersected the Mona Lisa’s gaze. [Leonardo Da Vinci’s 10 Best Ideas]

To test whether the painting of other functions made any difference in the way her gaze was observed by the observer, the researchers changed the zoom to change the picture or the woman who is the eyes and the nose, or in the whole head were visible. For the calculation of the angle of Mona Lisa’s gaze, as she looked at the viewer, they moved the ruler further away from or closer to the screen during the study. This provided them with two points to work with, making it possible to calculate the angle.

Look to the right

Consistently, the researchers found the participants has ruled that the woman in the “Mona Lisa’s” portrait was not looking directly for them, but something off to their right.

“Mona Lisa’ s degrees is clearly outside the range where you normally feel like you are being watched,” Horstmann said.

So why do people repeat the belief that her eyes seem to follow the viewer? Horstmann is not sure. It is possible, he said, that people have the desire to be viewed, so that they think that the woman who is right on them, even if they are not. Or maybe, he said, the people who first coined the term “Mona Lisa effect” thought it was a cool name.

The researchers reported their findings Jan. 7 in the open-access journal i-Perception.

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Originally published on Live Science.

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