Sunday, February 12, 2006

Mona Lisa smiles, but she's slightly pissed

“But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles.”

- Bob Dylan, Visions of Johanna, Blonde on Blonde, 1966

Bob’s theory, although compelling, was wrong. It wasn’t the highway blues at the source of the famous sitter’s legendary mirth. It was 83 percent happiness. And, 9 percent disgust, 6 percent fear, and 2 percent anger. No sadness at all.

It seems scientists in Amsterdam have developed a sophisticated computer algorithm for human emotion that analyzes facial expressions, specifically, the lines that occur between the eyes, nose and mouth. Working in conjunction with scientists at the University of Illinois, Dr. Nico Sebe of the University of Amsterdam has developed the theory by breaking down human emotions into six basic feelings: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust. I read this brief article waiting for the punch line, thinking it was a gag in The Onion. Apparently the report is legitimate, and was covered by various news sources last December.

Now I’m not a scientist, psychologist, or even a good judge of character, but I find this algorithm idea to be ridiculous. To reduce the human condition to six neat categories is tough enough, but can we ever hope to discern a person’s true feelings simply by reading the lines on their face? And then to apply this to an oil painting, which every person sees in a different light? I don’t think it’s quite this simple.

To me, La Giaconda always looked a little mischievous and bemused; probably because of the fake moustache and goatee she wore to the sitting. “Would Leo notice?” she wondered. And what could she be 9 percent disgusted about? I’m not sure you can even really see those facial lines under that moustache. Now DaVinci, upon seeing that moustache, was probably 80 percent disgusted and 20 percent fearful.

I wonder if we can apply this idea to other famous portraits. Let’s give it a try!

Van Gogh
57% surprise (damn, where’s my ear?)
33% disgust
10% anger

77% happiness (this was a good day for Andy)
20% fear
3% unknown content

50% anger
45% sadness
5% fear

Who would have guessed? You’ve got to learn to read between the lines.



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