Tuesday, January 20, 2015


LEONARDO’S BRAIN: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius, by Leonard Shlain 

I’m a big believer in the significance of names, and for this reason—among many others—took special pleasure in reading one Leonard (Leonard Shlain) writing with such evident passion about a namesake, Leonardo de Vinci, from many centuries past. 

A surgeon, inventor, and best-selling author, the late Leonard Shlain was evidently himself something of a Renaissance man.  No surprise, then, to find him so fascinated with Leonardo, the Renaissance man par excellence.  Steeped in knowledge of technology and the sciences as well as in history, music and art, Shlain writes not only with genuine enthusiasm for his subject, but with engagingly elegant and highly readable prose.   He carries along even the less informed reader—such as, with regard to the sciences, myself—with an organized progression of carefully examined content.  We follow his arguments with pleasure, and with curiosity as to where he will take us next. 

“Leonardo’s Brain” leads us on a spirited journey through a maze of information as complex and intriguing as the brain it seeks to describe.  I’m not up to date on left brain/right brain research, but Shain makes a persuasive case for his contention that da Vinci, a left-hander and quite possibly same-sex oriented, was as powerfully right- as left-brained, and possessed of an extraordinary intuitive power that enabled him to posit scientific theories and invent technological devices that were far ahead of his time.  He credits the artist, persuasively, with a special “time-space consciousness” that enabled him, for example, to envision aerial views of cities and landscapes that would have been unimaginable in his day; and to “see” his way through problems to solutions that no prior human knowledge or rational analysis could explain.

While Shain’s guided tour of Leonardo’s brain embraces, of course, the artist’s particular genius as a painter and draftsman, it also explores his astonishing grasp of human and animal anatomy, biology and botany, mathematics and astronomy, military sciences, geography, geology, cartography…  And more.  But the book itself is yet more ambitious, projecting from the master’s brain forward into present-day scientific, geopolitical and ecological issues and suggesting—I hope not overly optimistically—that the human brain has evolved, and will continue to evolve, toward an “improved version of homo sapiens”, gifted with a more dimensional understanding of our situation in the universe, a fuller and more generous consciousness; one that can operate, given the advances of five centuries, with the same time-space super-consciousness he attributes to Leonardo.

Let’s hope the author is right.  In the meantime, his book is an engaging antidote to the hostility and pessimism that infects our world today.  A more advanced, wide-ranging and compassionate consciousness is perhaps the last best hope of our troublesome and trouble-making species.

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