Why have we been fascinated for so many years by Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile? It may be due to random noise in our brain.

Philip Cohen reports in New Scientist that Christopher Tyler and Leonid Kontsevich manipulated a computer image of the painting by adding random visual “noise” (like the “snow” seen on a badly tuned TV). They then asked 12 people if they thought this Mona Lisa was sad or happy.

Sometimes the “noise” lifted the edges of her Mona Lisa’s smile and made her seem happier, while other times it flattened her lips and made her seem sadder. Tyler says our own eyes and brain work the same way: fluctuations in the number of photons hitting our eyes, randomness in the firing of neurons that reach the brain, etc. cause the painting’s expression to change subtly while we observe it. Tyler says, “That may be part of what makes the painting so powerful.” Leonardo knew nothing about computers, but he undoubtedly knew enough about how we see things to create this effect intentionally.

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