Scientific Legend of Mona Lisa’s Famous Gaze Debunked

The Mona Lisa effect is that eerie feeling that the eyes of painting are following us. But, according to Gernot Horstmann and Sebastian Loth, of Bielefeld University, Germany, the peepers of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece don’t actually do this at all. Their research, published in iPerception, is available here.

Newsweek’s article on the research includes a comment on this research by Christopher Tyler. Newsweek’s Kashmira Gander notes:

“Professor Christopher Tyler, a visual neuroscientist at City, University of London, U.K., who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek: “It seems very obvious that Mona Lisa is looking to your right, so it does not surprise me that the researchers were able to show that this is how people perceive it.

“What nobody seems to have explained, despite reams of text written on it, is why it works for some front-facing images and not others. My own view is that the key variable is the perceived depth, or 3D impression, of the face.

“When the face seems flat, the eyes following effect should be much less than when it has a lot of depth. I am not aware of any specific test of this hypothesis, however.”


More about the article:

The Mona Lisa Illusion
Scientists See Her Looking at Them Though She Isn’t

Gernot Horstmann, Sebastian LothFirst Published January 7, 2019
Research Article: PDF

If the person depicted in an image gazes at the camera or painter, a viewer perceives this as being gazed at. The viewers’ perception holds irrespectively of their position relative to image. This is the Mona Lisa effect named after the subject of Leonardo’s famous painting La Gioconda. The effect occurs reliably but was not tested with Mona Lisa herself. Remarkably, viewers judged Mona Lisa’s gaze as directed to their right-hand side irrespectively of the image zoom, its horizontal position on screen, and the distance of the ruler that was used for measuring the gaze direction.