Humans are pattern recognition experts. And looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c. 1503) below, listed as the world’s most viewed painting, is a good way to see the pattern we’re most cut out to see. It’s the face, of course!
Some 8 million people each year elbow their way to Room 711 on the Louvre Museum’s first floor in Paris to make eye-contact with her. And according to the biometric analysis above, 85% of them will focus on her face immediately – without even thinking about it. The images above, from 3M’s Visual Attention Software (VAS), show a heat map, glowing brightest where people are predicted to look most, a Visual Sequence diagram showing how her left eye is likely to get attention first and, at right, a Regions of Interest (ROI) diagram circling the areas that get noticed in initial 3-to-5 seconds, with the areas not delineated likely ignored in the same time period.
Another remarkable thing about viewing Mona is watching all the people from all over the world watch her – it’s a scene, as the NYT recently reported. that suggests how new technologies, iPhones and the internet, have changed how we view art. Now taking your picture with Mona becomes as, if not more, important than actually studying the painting up close. Publishing books about the selfie experience is growing too, with selfie-books featuring Mona for sale at the Louvre book store.
It all makes a good deal of sense when you think about it, looking at Mona helps us see ourselves. And so, looking at Mona with our own face in the image becomes doubly engaging! We’re a social species built for communicating; our survival depends on the well-honed ability to instantly look for and respond to faces and their diverse expressions.
And what shows up in art, shows up in architecture. See the face-like facades below from the greater Boston area. The materials may change, the purpose of the structures are different too, but what catches our attention stays consistent because it’s what we most need to see. We evolved with one brain, we don’t have another one, and it’s specifically wired for social engagement. You simply can’t build community, another requirement for a social species’ survival, without it.