Is the Mona Lisa Really Smiling?

Everyone knows that the Mona Lisa’s smile is incredibly mysterious and that this mystery is one of the things that makes the painting so famous. Is she smiling? Not smiling? New research from the University of California, San Francisco may have some answers.

They have found that our emotions actually alter how we see a neutral face. Dr. Erika Siegel and her colleagues have studied how emotions change our perception of the world. We all have one dominant eye and one that is more passive. Dr. Siegel and her colleagues showed 43 people two sets of flashing images at the same time so that the dominant eye would see and register the neutral expressions and the non-dominant eye would see flashes of neutral, unhappy or smiling faces that would register only at the subconscious level. Then, after people saw the flashing faces, they were shown options of faces and asked to pick out which ones they had seen.

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And the results? When their non-dominant eye saw a happy face, they were more likely to think the neutral faces had been smiling. The same was true with grimaces and with neutral expressions. As Dr. Siegel then explained, that “if you see the Mona Lisa after you have just had a screaming fight with your husband, you’re going to see [the painting] differently.” She continued, “But if you’re having the time of your life at the Louvre, you’re going to see the enigmatic smile.”


James Fishman has been involved in the world of online magazines for more than 15 years. He helped launch Sunstone Online and continues to improve the magazine as site editor and administrator. His writing focuses primarily business and technology. To be in touch with James, feel free to contact him at james[at]

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