Leonardo's Brain

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I finished reading a book that had been on my to-read list for quite some time. Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius by Leonard Shlain wasn’t the greatest book I have ever read but it did pose some interesting points that had me contemplating society and life. This was the first book on Leonardo I have read so a lot of what the author had implied was common knowledge was instead fresh and new for me. It was actually these points that I found the most interesting. The main arc of the book is an attempt to make assumptions about how Leonardo’s brain functioned in respect to our current knowledge of neuroscience. As I have no real interest in neuroscience I found myself glossing over these parts and instead focusing on the data presented about how Leonardo had lived his life and the wealth of information he left behind. Obviously, I was not the intended audience for this book but I do feel it was worth taking the time to read.

Here are a few of the quotes and passages from the book I found the most interesting:


The water you touch in a river is the last of that which has passed and the first of that which is coming. Thus it is with time present.

-LEONARDO DA VINCI


Authorities representing the principal Western religions considered any likeness created by the human hand depicting any aspect of nature an “abomination,” because it could possibly detract from the worship of an invisible deity. “Thou shalt make no images” is the gist of the Second Commandment, and “Thou shalt not kill” is the sixth. Question: Why did the West’s three major religions all rank art more dangerous than murder?


Murray Gell-Mann, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics, observed:

Since education is effective only insofar as it affects the working of the brain, we can see that an elementary school program narrowly restricted to reading, writing, and arithmetic will educate mainly one hemisphere, leaving half of an individuals high-level potential unschooled. Has our society tended to overemphasize the values of an analytical attitude, or even of logical reasoning?


Here, then, is both the majesty and the tyranny of language. The ability to describe reality reveals a weakness in the scheme: the propensity to objectify. By having an entire cerebral lobe wired for processing linear language, we have inadvertently torn ourselves free from the matrix of nature. Humans gained enough distance from this matrix to look back upon it and decide that we were no longer part of it. Unity cracked and duality emerged. We are “here” and nature is “there.” But new information has upended the idea that there is a “there.”

With the discovery of quantum mechanics, physicist John Wheeler summarized what mankind should understand, “There is no out there out there.” We gained objectivity but lost our sense of connectedness to the universe. We are presently embarked on a massive destruction of nature because we cannot visualize our role in it.


Might it be possible that the ultimate purpose of life was to develop an organism that could see the universe?

According to Wheeler, Mind and Universe are inextricably integrated. The Talmud expresses this subtle relationship in an apocryphal story of a dialogue between God and Abraham. God begins by chiding Abraham, “If it wasn’t for Me, you wouldn’t exist.” After a moment of reflection, Abraham respectfully replies, “Yes, Lord, and for that I am very appreciative and grateful. However, if it wasn’t for me, You wouldn’t be known.”