The Mona Lisa Effect: scientists have debunked Mona Lisa’s gaze

The Mona Lisa Effect: scientists have debunked Mona Lisa's gaze
© iStock/ilbusca


Scientists have debunked the myth of Mona Lisa’s gaze, explaining that, ironically, the painting is not a true example of the Mona Lisa Effect.

The Mona Lisa Effect is the impression that the eyes of the person in an image follow the viewer as they move in front of the picture. The name of the scientific effect comes from Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Mona Lisa. However, two researchers from the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) have demonstrated that Mona Lisa does not accurately represent the so-called Mona Lisa Effect.

Professor Dr. Gernot Horstmann is a member of the Neuro-Cognitive Psychology research group at Bielefeld University’s Department of Psychology and the Cluster of Excellence CITEC and a specialist in eye movement and attention. He is one of the authors on this new study, and explained: “People are very good at gauging whether or not they are being looked at by others. Perceptual psychology demonstrated this in the 1960s. People can feel like they’re being looked at from both photographs and paintings – if the person portrayed looks straight ahead out of the image, that is, at a gaze angle of 0 degrees.”

“With a slightly sideward glance, you may still feel as if you were being looked at. This was perceived as if the portrayed person were looking at your ear, and corresponds to about 5 degrees from a normal viewing distance. But as the angle increases, you would not have the impression of being looked at.”

Is the Mona Lisa looking at her viewers, or not? Prof. Dr. Gernot Horstmann and Dr. Sebastian Loth from the Cluster of Excellence CITEC pursued this question in their new study
© CITEC/ Bielefeld University

Why Mona Lisa is not an example of the Mona Lisa Effect

To test the Mona Lisa effect on the Mona Lisa, Horstmann and Loth asked 24 participants to look at the painting on a computer screen and assess the direction of her gaze while sitting in front of the monitor.

A folding ruler was positioned between them and the screen at several distances. The participants used the ruler to indicate where Mona Lisa’s gaze met the ruler.

They tested whether individual features of the face influenced the viewer’s perception of the gaze by using fifteen different sections from the portrait. Each image was shown three times in random order, and halfway through the session, the researchers changed the distance of the ruler from the monitor.

Horstmann and Loth gathered more than two thousand assessments. Almost every single measurement indicated that Mona’s gaze is not straight on. It is actually to the viewer’s right-hand side.

The other author the study, Dr. Sebastian Loth. a member of the Social Cognitive Systems research group, which is part of the Faculty of Technology and CITEC, added: “Curiously enough, we don’t have to stand right in front of the image in order to have the impression of being looked at – even if the person portrayed in the image looks straight ahead. But with the Mona Lisa, of all paintings, we didn’t get this impression.”

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