Leonard Shlain: Da Vinci's mind

Leonard_shlain_01I'll be splitting time between a couple of sessions, Leonard Shlain's Da Vinci's Mind and the panel on "New New-Media." I believe Ethan Zuckerman will be blogging the panel, so try My Heart's in Accra for a descriptive of that session. Update: Ethan has posted here.

Dr. Shlain begins by saying its a challenge to say something new about Da Vinci.

Suppose, he asks, the Nobel Prize committee gave out only two awards, ever. One in art and one in science. There is a good chance that the winner would be Leonardo Da Vinci, who might just collect both.

What is it about him?

Born in 1452, three other events had an enormous impact on that time:

  • Gutenberg's press - 1453
  • Constantinople/Artillery - 1454
  • Columbus' discovery of American - 1492

The Chinese invented printing, which leads him to describe the impact of alphabet. Language, reading, writing can literally change the brain's wiring. He traverses a lot of intellectual territory here, including touching on Marshall McLuhan, who coined the term the "medium is the message," to drive home the point that we are changed by the tools we use.

In art, perspective emerged as a technique during the Renaissance. Alberti worked out the math behind it. I like this quote: "Perspective was to the Renaissance what computer science is to today."

Copernicus also asked the "perspectivist's" question. By conceptualizing standing on the sun, he could see things differently.

He shows a wonderful landscape, the first of its kind to appear. Something I didn't know: landscape art just wasn't done in that period. Da Vinci also invented a technique called "smoky perspective."

Dr. Shlain points out that Mona Lisa's smile is so beguiling because on either side of her head are two entirely different landscape perspectives of the same scene.

He discusses the control the brain exerts over facial features, which leads him to conclude that a disconnect between his left and right brain causes the famous smirk of George Bush, which draws laughter.

In science, Dr. Shlain points out that Da Vinci wrote in his notebooks that the sun does not move, long before that was understood 

What kind of wiring did this guy have? What we know:

He was male, a musician, he wrote backwards, was ambidextrous and was gay. From a neurological point of view, the two different hemispheres in humans do different things, which makes the human brain unlike that of other animals, whose two halves are mirror images.

There is much too much to adequately convey here. Check out his books if you're interested in his take on neurology, mind and development, and the relationships he's discovered between the arts and sciences. 


Photo: Geoff Oliver Bugbee, www.geoffbugbee.com