Mona Lisa’s eyes are not following you around the room, says study

2,000 assessments showed that her gaze is not straight but to the viewer’s right

German researchers say they have finally cracked the intriguing question of whether the Mona Lisa ’s eyes follow viewers around the room. The answer is a disappointing ‘no’. In science, the “Mona Lisa Effect” refers to the impression that the eyes of the person portrayed in an image seem to follow viewers as they move. Researchers from the Bielefeld University have demonstrated that this effect does not occur with the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci. “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,” said researcher Sebastian Loth. “This impression emerges if we stand to the left or right and at different distances from the image. The robust sensation of ‘being looked at’ is precisely the Mona Lisa effect.

The effect itself is undeniable and demonstrable but with the Mona Lisa, of all paintings, we didn’t get this impression.” For the study, published in the journal i-Perception , the team asked a small group of participants to look at the Mona Lisa on a computer screen and assess the direction of her gaze. A simple folding ruler was positioned between them and the screen at several distances. The participants indicated where Mona Lisa’s gaze met the ruler.

Tracking perception

The team used 15 different sections from the portrait — starting with her entire head to only her eyes and nose to test whether individual features of Mona Lisa’s face influenced the viewers’ perception of her gaze. They gathered more than 2,000 assessments — and almost every single measurement indicated that the Mona Lisa gaze is not straight on but to the viewer’s right. “Thus, it is clear that the term “Mona Lisa effect” is nothing but a misnomer. It illustrates the 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,” the researchers noted.

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