The Real Reason You Like the Mona Lisa

Sigh, there is only one occurrence of the word "smile" in the above writeups, yet the single reason our Mona Lisa survived to became the institution it is today is: her smile.

This is not a matter of divine inspiration, the conquest of the human spirit, or the soul of a man portrayed on canvas; there is a simple, mathematical, neurological reason why you enjoy looking at the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci froze Mona Lisa's smile in a superposition of emotional information. Perhaps we should not call it a smile at all, for it is both a smile and a frown at the same time.

Human sensory memory use two types of mass input for visual processing purposes: foveal and peripheral. Foveal vision is the focused center of our visual field and yields high-spatial frequencies, albeit for a small area. Peripheral vision, on the other hand, takes in visual information radially outward from the foveal focus point and does so with low-spatial frequencies. Both the foveal and peripheral processes are part of a grander system of raw visual processing which automagically oversees the distribution of visual information to the occipital and parietal lobes. Without getting too far into the neurological processes involved, your brain then determines which emotion the face intends to communicate.

In the case of the Mona Lisa, your foveal vision assumes her mouth is smiling because the sharp visual data matches up with other sharp visual smiles you have stored in your long term memory. However, the blurred peripheral data leads your brain to conclude Mona Lisa is frowning. The contradiction leaves you with a tickle of confused emotion powerful enough to propel the painting into prosperity.

For all of you out there who point to the beauty of fine art as proof of some greater universal good, just remember we're on your tail.

References: - Excellent primer on human vision - BBC news story on Mona Lisa's smile
Livingston, M. 2001 A spatial frequency interpretation of Mona Lisa. Science - Science magazine article on Mona Lisa's smile