Scientists debunk famous legend of Mona Lisa's eyes

The Mona Lisa Effect is real, but sometimes the eyes lie.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

The study used a ruler to help participants indicate where they thought the Mona Lisa's gaze was directed.

CITEC/ Bielefeld University

There's more mystery to the Mona Lisa than just her secret smirk. 

The Mona Lisa Effect is the concept that the eyes in an image are following you. It was named for Leonardo da Vinci's famous portrait from the Renaissance, but it may need a new moniker now.

Researchers at Bielefeld University in Germany took a closer look at the Mona Lisa Effect to see if Mona Lisa's eyes actually seem to track viewers moving in front of the painting housed at the Louvre in Paris. 

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Gernot Horstmann (left) and Sebastian Loth measured the direction of the Mona Lisa's gaze.

CITEC/ Bielefeld University

"People are very good at gauging whether or not they are being looked at by others," says psychologist Gernot Horstmann, an expert on eye movement and co-author of a study on the Mona Lisa Effect published this week in the journal i-Perception.

The researchers says the effect kicks in when the subject of a photograph or painting looks ahead toward the viewer. The team displayed part of the Mona Lisa's face on a computer screen and used test subjects to measure the painting's perceived gaze. 

They found that participants perceived the Mona Lisa's gaze to be off to the right-hand side. 

The scientists laid out their results in no uncertain terms: "We conclude from the measurements that the lack of evidence is due to the claim being objectively false: Mona Lisa does not gaze at the viewer." 

The Mona Lisa Effect has a notable role in modern technology. Study co-author Sebastian Loth researches communication with avatars. "When communicating with an avatar, for example in a virtual environment, gaze improves our understanding of the avatar," Loth says. He says the avatar can use its gaze to point at objects or express attention. 

The Mona Lisa is a spectacular painting, but now we know she'd make for a lousy avatar.

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