So, here’s an intriguing title for a post: The Astounding Secret Behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Creative Genius
I mean, a secret? Other than: da Vinci was a creative genius because some people are, for mysterious reasons?
Well, let’s see where this post goes ….
In the book Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius, Shlain makes an excellent case that Leonardo da Vinci was biologically different from practically all other humans. According to Shlain, da Vinci’s brain was the perfect balance of right and left hemispheres. It was because of a one-of-a-kind abnormality in Leonardo da Vinci’s corpus callosum—the part of the brain responsible for controlling analytical left-brain observation and right-brain creativity.
Ah! Well, that is indeed interesting. Personally, I immediately want someone like Scott Alexander to do a book review. I would trust him to know plenty about (a) brain anatomy, and (b) theories about brain function, and (c) evidence, and what it is, and how to think about it. These are all topics Scott knows a whole lot about. I don’t know if I can trust this guy, Leonard Shlain, to know what he’s talking about. I wonder who he is?
Here is Shlain’s Wikipedia page. He was a surgeon, inventor, and writer, it says. So I still don’t know, but that’s at least a somewhat relevant background.
Shlain postulates that da Vinci saw universal interconnectedness in everything… everywhere. Biologically advantaged by some quirk of nature, da Vinci elevated his mind to a higher state of consciousness than achieved by other people. Leonardo da Vinci—according to author Leonard Shlain—evolved into a superhuman
I hope Shlain didn’t use that phrase. Individuals do not evolve. Populations evolve. Here we see why that is so. Let’s stipulate for the moment that da Vinci did in fact have peculiar brain anatomy and was for that reason super-intelligent and super-perceptive. This intelligence and creativity is not attributed to genetics, did not occur in the midst of a “great family,” and was not passed on to descendants or collateral kin. This kind of one-off exceptionalism is so not what evolution is about.
If you are interested — I suddenly found myself interested — here is an article about da Vinci’s living relatives. They are not, of course, especially close relatives.
In 2016, the researchers identified 35 living relatives of Leonardo’s, including the film director and opera designer Franco Zeffirelli. …
Of the 14 descendants referenced in the study, just one had previously known about their links to the Renaissance icon. Some still live in the towns neighboring Vinci and “have ordinary jobs like a clerk, a surveyor, an artisan,” Vezzosi tells ANSA.
Back to the original post:
Leonardo da Vinci’s brain was so evolved—author Shlain writes—that his mind easily accessed information not readily there for normal people. Da Vinci’s brain/mind power was so special that he “thought” his way to fantastic ideas. It also let da Vinci observe what was going on in the universe and record it. That might have been simplistic beauty as in the Lady With an Ermine, an anatomical analogy like Vitruvian Man or a geometric complexity seen in the Rhombicuboctahedron.
Shlain WAS using the word “evolved,” apparently. I do wish he had not. I suddenly find it difficult to take him seriously.
Well, despite that, this is an interesting post.
A lot of writers have found Leonardo da Vinci an intriguing character — I mean, in a fictional sense as well as a historical sense.
Manly Wade Wellman (Silver John, you’ve all read those stories, right?) apparently wrote a time-travel novel featuring da Vinci. Amazingly, this is available on Kindle for a reasonable price.
DWJ, in A Tale of Time City, offers an possible nod to da Vinci, when a villain named Leon is exiled to 15th century Italy. I did not actually notice that when I read this book, but someone pointed that out to me and it’s stuck in my head.
It turns out — this is something I didn’t realize until I just googled “da vinci in science fiction” — that there are so many stories that include da Vinci references that these are called “vinciads.” Here is an encyclopedia entry about this. I had no idea.
Popular in literary fiction too, I see: here’s a list of five novels that feature Leonardo da Vinci as a protagonist, such as this one:
Leonardo’s Swans, by Karen Essex
What makes Essex’s portrayal of da Vinci interesting is that she views him through the lens of other characters in this complex and subtle fictional biography of the competitive Estes sisters in 15th century Italy. Placed into politically motivated marriages, the sisters see their happiness and fortunes wax and wane, but are ultimately drawn to the brilliant artist and thinker for different reasons: one wants him to pursue the projects that will improve the lives of the people, while the other wishes only to be made immortal as the subject of one of the master’s portraits. In Essex’s skilled hands da Vinci is much more than a figure from history, and seeing him at a remove clarifies the personality hinted at in historical accounts and, ironically, makes for a stronger sense of the person than in some more intimate portrayals.
It turns out that once you start looking for nonfiction and fiction related to da Vinci, there’s no end to the rabbit hole. I guess that’s only right. Regardless of his brain anatomy, da Vinci was certainly one of a kind.
1 thought on “The Astounding Secret Behind Da Vinci’s Genius”
I have a PhD in neuroscience, and whenever anyone starts talking to you about right and left brain, the stuff that follows is going to be nonsense at least 97% of the time. Didn’t click through to read any more than the quotes you pulled, but these quotes all read like bullshit to me. DaVinci was an interesting guy, but he was exactly as related to the rest of humanity as the rest of us are, because that’s how biology works. The idea that he had the Number One Most Special Brain of All Time is implausible to say the least.