If you think celebrities have a hard time dealing with fans and paparazzi, think of poor Mona Lisa. She has been analyzed, studied, featured in song and worked into novels. Her smile has been considered innocent and sweet or—if Nat King Cole is to be believed—a way to hide a broken heart. There’s even talk that Lisa isn’t Lisa at all.
It’s true! Lisa Gherardini, second wife of a well to do Florentine silk merchant, sat for a portrait by Leonardo da Vinci somewhere between 1503 and 1506 ACE. So much is fact. But scientists like Silvano Vinceti feel that Da Vinci only used some of her features when he painted his portrait. The famous smile was added later, Vinceti believes, and was probably modeled after Gian Giacomo Caprotti, the maestro’s assistant. Why? Because Lisa was—according to Viceti’s theory—a dark and depressed person and definitely not the lady with the elusive smile.
Researchers from the University of Amsterdam have actually put poor Mona through an ‘emotion recognition’ computer software test in collaboration. They decided (electronically) that her smile was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, 2% angry, and 0% surprised. Actually, I disagree. I am sure that the lady would have been really surprised at all the fuss about her smile.
Other scientists—and there are quite a few—maintain that Mona Lisa’s smile changes according to the way in which cells in our retinas pick up images transmit them to the brain. Dr. Martinex Otero, a neuroscientist in Spain, suggests that because of this, sometimes one sees the smile—sometimes not. According to his research, the smile is more visible if the viewer stands close to the painting. Then, there are the two scientists of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute who feel that the smile changes because of shifting levels of noise in the human visual system. And Dina Goldin, Adjunct Professor at Brown, argues that the smile lies in the dynamic juxtaposition of Mona Lisa’s facial muscles.
Enough, already! Why, I asked myself, does there have to be all this fuss about a smile? Ah, but the latest studies have shown that smiling can change our brain. Our brains, clever things that they are, keep track of our smiles and figures out what emotional state we are likely to be in. Smiling, apparently, reduces stress and acts almost like a good night’s sleep. So next time we are awakened at 4:00 AM and our eyes stay wide open, we need only to smile and all will be well.
If smiling is so good for us, I wondered, how often do we smile during a day? There’s a study for that, too. Children apparently smile about 400 times during a 24 hour period. Happy adults indulge in smiling 40 to 50 times with the average coming in at about 20 times. Women, apparently, smile more than men—not that they are happier but because society expects women to smile more. Keen observers that we women are, studies show, (of course there are studies for this, too!) we are far more able to see through a fake smile.
So smiling is a good thing. But wait, wait— there is confusion here. Japanese may smile when angry, confused or shy. Smiles can cover embarrassment in parts of Asia. And in some countries people don’t smile at everyone but just reserve them for friends.
As Mona Lisa can tell you, a smile is no simple thing. Still, as George Eliot remarked, it’s really the only option. “Wear a smile,” she advised, “and have friends; scowl and have wrinkles.”
Wearing a bright smile
Is better than wearing gems
And so much cheaper.