Leonardo da Vinci’s Observations

We all know Leonardo de Vinci (1452-1519) as a famous artist (e.g.The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper), and some have heard about his many inventions, but do you know of his contributions to the field of neuroscience?

He was the original Renaissance Man, someone who excels in many areas. His range was wide, and he was way ahead of his time in so many areas. His observations in how the body and brain worked, especially the circulator system, are the basis of research today.

What made this illegitimate son of a peasant girl and a notary become one of the most famous artists, inventors and scientists who ever lived? His energy was limitless when it came to asking questions and searching for answers, and he was the master of observation — which led to more questions and discoveries. He had an insatiable desire to learn as much as he could about everything he observed, and he took meticulous notes. He even described himself as a “disciple of experience,” which meant he learned from experiencing, experimenting and observing everything he came in contact with.

DeVinci’s was most intrigued by how the body functions, and the brain developed. He believed the brain was the key to “understanding the relationship between the senses and the soul.” His belief in the soul as being a part of the overall body experience is still a reason many scientists still dismiss his findings, but that doesn’t take away from their contributions to the field in his time — or what research is finding to hold true today.

It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when his hundreds of pages of notes and detailed anatomical drawings became published, that his work in the field of neuroscience became known. He was a pioneer in the art of sketching anatomically correct features of the body based on his own observations and experiments — as well as dissections.

Leonardo da Vinci described the imprensiva, a brain structure that mediates between sense organs (such as the eye) and the senso comune. “ The senso comune is the seat of the soul, memory is its monitor, and the imprensiva is its standard of reference,” he wrote. The term ‘imprensiva’ has not been adopted by any anatomist before or after Leonardo, but the concept of the brain interpreting stimuli from the senses lives on.

He worked to establish a coherent theory of how the senses operate — particularly how the eyes sees. His drawings of the details of the musculature and circulatory systems of the body are still used today. He was the first scientist to ‘pith’ a frog, and observed that the spinal cord was the foundation for the body. He wrote, “The frog instantly dies when the medulla of the spine is perforated; and previously it lived without a head, without a heart or internal (organs) intestines or skin. Here therefore appears to lie the foundation of movement and life.”

DaVinci’s research into the brain brought him to discoveries in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. He injected hot wax into the brain of an ox to get a casting of the ventricles, and was able to define the shape and size of an internal structure within the body. Da Vinci dissected human bodies, a practice that was prohibited for centuries but lightened up I the 14th century. His skill as an artist served him well in this area, and his observations, although based on ancient theories as well as his own observations, showed a unique viewpoint for his time.

Although Leonardo da Vinci holds a place in science as well as other fields, he was not as appreciated for his scientific work largely due to his ancient-held beliefs that he incorporated in his observations.

From the desk of Ron White, memory speaker

Memory Training


Scientific American — Leonardo da Vinci, Neuroscientist: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=leonardo-da-vinci-neurosc

Leonardo da Vinci’s contribution to neuroscience: http://pevsnerlab.kennedykrieger.org/pdf/Pevsner_TIN_2002_sans.pdf

Behind the Canvas – Leonardo da Vinci and The Brain: http://www.davinciandthebrain.org/

NCBI – Leonardo da Vinci’s contributions to neuroscience: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11998691

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