Our brains have trouble understanding smiles

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Mona Lisa
This is a photo of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa. Depending on how you look at the artwork, her expression seems to change…

Have you ever wondered why the Mona Lisa – Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting – is so famous? Part of the reason is because her smile looks different depending on where you’re standing, so it’s hard to read her expression. Well, according to research from the University of La Laguna, everyone’s smile holds a bit of mystery and our brains have a difficult time seeing what emotion is really expressed!

In fact, according to the researchers, smiles actually do a good job of hiding what we’re feeling inside. “The smile plays a key role in recognizing others’ happiness,” said Beltran Guerrero, a researcher at the University of La Laguna.  “But, as we know, we are not really happy every time we smile. So, when we do see a smile, it’s difficult to know what a person is really feeling.”

In order to prove this, the researchers designed both happy and non-happy mouths, eyes, and faces to show to participants. Sometimes the features were puzzled together to make a truly happy face. Other times, the smiles, eyes, and faces were jumbled together in a happy and non-happy mix. The combination made a face look sort of joyful, but it mostly displayed a Mona Lisa-like smile, which appears different based on how you look at it.

From there, the scientists showed the faces to volunteers who were asked to guess whether the face was happy or not. Around 40% of the time, participants assumed that the Mona Lisa smile was genuine glee, even though it was neither happy nor unhappy.

However, when the volunteers were asked to guess whether the emotion was positive or negative, they had a lot more trouble making up their minds. “The influence of the smile is highly dependent on the type of task given to participants and, therefore, on the type of activity we are involved in,” said Beltran.

Still, the researchers claim that it’s safe to assume smiles are usually associated with happiness. However, there can be much hidden beneath a flash of pearly whites…

Featured image courtesy of Thomas Rodenbücher on Flickr.