We at DecoScience love it when a news story combines art and science and if it causes you to rethink your ideas of perception, all the better. Prepare yourself; in this week’s blog I will be talking about Leonardo
da Vinci again in this blog (at least as a jumping off point). There is so much that one can discuss in regards to the Maestro but today I will be focusing upon the Mona Lisa Effect in particular and the science behind her stare. This is that strong feeling of being looked at by a picture (you are out with a group of friends and a big dog and all the pictures seem to be staring at you…gulp) and yes, there has been a study done in this area and researchers have recently published their findings.

Many people who have visited the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, France swear to their feeling that her eyes follow you everywhere as you move about the painting. This can be found with other paintings as well but none are so tied to this phenomenon as the lady herself. So much so, this weird effect of perception is known as the Mona Lisa Effect. The funny thing about this is, it is a real optical illusion but researchers have proven this famous
painting does not fit the bill.

Two researchers from the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) at Bielefeld University in Germany, Prof. Dr. Gernot Horstmann and Dr. Sebastian Loth have demonstrated that this effect does not actually occur with the da Vinci painting at all. This is because she is not looking directly at the viewer but slightly to her left-hand side thus not falling within the parameters associated with this illusion. (It actually appears as if she is looking more at your ear.) In his research on communication with robots and avatars, Loth repeatedly encountered the term “Mona Lisa Effect”, named after the infamous 16th century oil painting. “The effect itself is undeniable and demonstrable,” says Loth. “But with the Mona Lisa, of all paintings, we didn’t get this impression.” He decided to test this observation.

People can tell when they are being looked at by others and this also holds true with paintings and photographs. If a portrait is looking straight out of the painting/photograph at the viewer, this is a gaze angle of 0֯. Interestingly enough, you do not have to be standing directly in front of this type of portrait to feel it looking at you. Twenty-four participants were asked to indicate where they thought Lisa was looking and they thought her gaze was approximately 15.4֯ away from their current position directly in front of the painting. Researchers state that for this effect to hold true, the gaze would have to be within 5֯ of the perceiver’s location. “Thus, it is clear that the term “Mona Lisa Effect” is nothing but a misnomer. It illustrates the strong desire to be looked at and to be someone else’s centre of attention—to be relevant to someone, even if you don’t know the person at all.” – Gernot Horstmann.

Next time you are at an art gallery check out the portraits that look straight out and see if they follow you. Most likely you will see this effect in action and you don’t have to solve any mysteries or be chased by any ghosts. Jinkies!

–Janice Willson

References: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2041669518821702

Photo source: The Louvre

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