While The ‘Mona Lisa Effect’ Is An Actual Phenomenon, The Mona Lisa Painting Doesn’t Actually Qualify


There is a term called the Mona Lisa Effect that relates to the perception that an image is following a person with their gaze. It was so named after the famous Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci for which many have claimed the woman in the picture is following them with her eyes.

However, science has now debunked the Mona Lisa Effect on the original painting that gave the name to the illusion, according to Phys.org.

While the Mona Lisa Effect is considered a real phenomenon, it seems that the actual painting of the Mona Lisa doesn’t actually fall into its own category. Two researchers, Professor Dr. Gernot Horstmann and Dr. Sebastian Loth, both from the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) at Bielefeld University, have recently released a paper that studies the Mona Lisa Effect and how the actual Mona Lisa painting doesn’t qualify. The paper was published in the scientific journal i-Perception, according to Phys.org.

So, how can the Mona Lisa not be considered a part of the very effect named after her?

It has to do with the angle at which an image’s eyes are painted, according to the paper.

“People can feel like they’re being looked at from both photographs and paintings — if the person portrayed looks straight ahead out of the image, that is, at a gaze angle of 0 degrees,” explains Horstmann.

“With a slightly sideward glance, you may still feel as if you were being looked at. This was perceived as if the portrayed person were looking at your ear, and corresponds to about 5 degrees from a normal viewing distance. But as the angle increases, you would not have the impression of being looked at.”

“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,” adds Dr. 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.”

So, in order to see if the Mona Lisa painting did, in fact, have the Mona Lisa Effect, the researchers had 24 study participants “look at the Mona Lisa on a computer screen and assess the direction of her gaze” to determine what angle her gaze was. Rulers were placed between the participants and the computer image of the Mona Lisa. Those involved in the study then determined at which points the Mona Lisa’s gaze seemed to intercept with the rulers. In addition, different images of the Mona Lisa were used to help determine the angle. Some images were of the painting’s full face whereas other images only showed a part of the painting.

Using 15 different images that were shown in random order for a total of three times each and changing the position of the rulers part way through the participation, the researchers ended up with more than 2,000 assessments on which they could base their analysis.

As a result of their findings, it was discovered that the Mona Lisa painting does not actually have the Mona Lisa Effect.

“The participants in our study had the impression that Mona Lisa’s gaze was aimed to their right-hand side,” Horstmann explained.

“More specifically, the gaze angle was 15.4 degrees on average. Thus, it is clear that the term ‘Mona Lisa Effect’ is nothing but a misnomer. It illustrates the strong desire to be looked at and to be someone else’s center of attention — to be relevant to someone, even if you don’t know the person at all.”