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Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius

Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius
By Leonard Shlain
256 pages, Lyons Press, 2015

Image from Lyons Press

Several months ago, my best friend gave me
Leonardo’s Brain as a college graduation gift. Little did he know, this book had been on my list for far too long, but amidst the chaos of school work and daily life, I never managed to get around to it—that is, until now, when it was handed to me on a silver platter.

Let me begin by proclaiming that this is not just any average chronicle of Leonardo da Vinci’s life, achievements, and legacy. As an art lover, I have read many a biography over the past few years and at their best, they leave me with a deepened appreciation for the man of many (ahem, MANY) talents. But what this book does that others fail to do is deepen our appreciation for not just Leonardo, but for the endless capabilities of the human brain—and by extension—humankind. In his book, Leonard Shlain, the notable and beloved surgeon, inventor, and best-selling author, sets out to conduct a type of posthumous “brain scan” in order to hypothesize how a brain like Leonardo’s could have manifested itself in endless unparalleled achievements in both the arts and the sciences. Through exploring the possibilities of his neuroanatomy in combination with the behavioral and intellectual perplexities of the undereducated, vegetarian, left-handed, pacifist, gay, unprecedented creative genius, Shlain gives us a vibrant testimony to the power and essence of interdisciplinary creative thought.

Shlain parallels an intriguing life history of Leonardo with an informative and accessible account of the neuroscience behind the book’s themes, from creativity to emotions to language. But he doesn’t stop there. In fact, this is just the backbone of a story far bigger than Leonardo alone. In order to underline the Renaissance man’s true genius, Shlain gives due credit to Leonardo’s multi-disciplinary mastery in engineering, architecture, botany, cartography, military strategy, mathematics, and medical anatomy by situating him within an expansive historical context, explaining how Leonardo intuitively embedded modern split-brain psychology in his Mona Lisa; how he presaged Newton’s Third Law, Bernoulli’s law, elements of chaos theory, and others; or how he foreshadowed the inventions of the telescope, camera, machine gun, helicopter, and even the first true robot, among countless others. In essence, Shlain seamlessly weaves together the intricacies of the human mind, bringing us from one end of history to the other and back, painting us a beautiful, and, at times, spiritual picture of the past, present, and future of human evolution through Leonardo’s life.

Perhaps it is Shlain’s mind-bending theorizing about Leonardo’s brain that deserves the most recognition. Shlain believes that human progress would have been considerably advanced had most of Leonardo’s achievements not gone unnoticed at the time, but he pushes this further by using left-right brain theory to argue that Leonardo was able to tap into a level of consciousness previously unavailable to mankind. Presenting us with a riveting and illuminating discussion about space-time consciousness and the surreal possibility that Leonardo was able to perceive time differently, Shlain asks us: “Did his brain perhaps represent a jump toward the future of man? Are we as a species moving toward an appreciation of space-time and nonlocality?”

Regardless of whether we have or will ever have answers to these questions, Shlain proved to me that over half a millennium later, Leonardo remains one of the most robust and optimistic models for human possibility, consistently reminding us all to open our eyes and see the interconnected nature of life—and then do something about it. But at its core, Shlain’s argument is still deeply provocative and is likely to be met with considerable skepticism from readers. Even as a strong advocate of this book, I certainly had my fair share of doubt. However, after reading and reflecting and re-reading, I’ve come to believe that this was Shlain’s main objective in the first place: to defy, question, complicate convention, whether or not we were convinced by any of it in the end. And for that, at the very least, he has undoubtedly succeeded.

Shlain’s other best-selling books include Art & Physics, Alphabet vs. The Goddess and Sex, Time, and Power.

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