Leonardo da Vinci: The Keen Eye


Curiosity is defined as “desire to know…interest leading to inquiry” (Curiosity, 2010). Many of us think of curiosity as an innate quality and it certainly appears as such. However, this inquisitive behavior is unlike mating or mimicry in that it lacks a fixed action pattern; in other words, there are no specific neural patterns designed to produce the behavior. This could be due to the fact that curiosity is an enormously intricate structure of the brain, and thus research has yet to conclude whether or not curiosity is a primary or secondary drive (Edelman, S., 1997).

Innate or not, curiosity is true to its definition: it is caused by desire. This desire comes from “a form of cognitively induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge or understanding” (Loewenstein, G., 1994). Communication scholars may call this Cognitive Dissonance, as it is a motivational drive to better understand conflicting fractions of existing or non-existing knowledge (Cognitive Dissonance Theory, 2004); or Semiotics, the production and interpretation of meaning (Semiotic Theory, 2004). In any case, there is a common thread among these theories under which curiosity can be classified: spiritual emotion. And all humans share the emotions, inspired by the soul, which drive curiosity.

For scientists and artists alike, it is a duty to both pursue and inspire curiosity. Although these fields are classified as different disciplines, they both aim at seeking a unified truth (Zeki, S. 1999). Empirical research lends itself as the method of exploration for the sciences, while pencil and paper are the valued medium for the artist. But no matter the means, the results consistently harmonize – art reflects science, science reflects art, and both benefit from the other.

Recent advancements in neuroscience have lent a hand in this duet between art and science. Mainly attributed to the work of Semir Zeki, neuroaesthetics, the scientific study of the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of a work of art (Nalbantian, S., 2008), provides us with that innate quality that curiosity leaves us without. It provides us with answers for the seemingly superficial integration of science and art. Neuroaesthetics shows us that science and art rely on one another because they are one in the same.

One man knew this and used it to his advantage long before neuroaesthetics had even been born. Interestingly enough, his tremendous curiosity is what compelled him to achieve astonishing feats of both science and art. Leonardo da Vinci is the true father of neuroscience, contributing fascinating research to the field before it’s time (Anatomical Drawings, 2004), and establishing himself as the first to make a true and literal connection between the arts and the sciences.

A True Renaissance Man

In a time when the Middle Ages were bridging to the Modern Era, the Italian Renaissance gave the world Leonardo da Vinci. In return, da Vinci gave to the Renaissance, the world. His intensive research covered all spectrums from art to architecture, music to math, engineering to botany, and anatomy to geology; exemplifying the term “Renaissance Man”. Driven by extreme curiosity in a time and place where cultural and technological advancements were booming, da Vinci continuously and relentlessly produced vast amounts of fresh, intellectual insight. Although he is largely criticized for the lack of published work, his paintings and notebooks provide us with the necessary evidence to give him praise.

In order to uncover his generous contributions to neuroaesthetics, this essay will analyze a selection of his notebook sketches.

Vitruvian Man – 1492

Da Vinci’s curiosity was strongly driven by his inspiration to connect man and nature. In one of his earliest drawings, the Vitruvian Man, da Vinci brought illustrative light to an excerpt from the Ten Books of Architecture by Vitruvius Pollio, Roman writer and architect, in which he describes the human proportions. Vitruvius states that architecture should reflect the proportions of man because the human body is perfection (Place, R., 2000).

“For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height; the open hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger is just the same; the head from the chin to the crown is an eighth, and with the neck and shoulder from the top of the breast to the lowest roots of the hair is a sixth…”

– Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture (50BC)

His drawing uses Vitruvius’ geometry and produces what is known as the “ideal human proportions”. These proportions follow a strict, mathematical ratio of 1:1.618, derived from the Fibonacci Series (0,1,1,2,3,5,8…). As you compute the ratio of each pair of adjacent numbers, a pattern slowly emerges:

1:1 = 1

2:1 = 2

3:2 = 1.5

5:3 = 1.6666

8:5 = 1.6

13:8 = 1.625

21:13 = 1.6153

34:21 = 1.6190

55:34 = 1.6176

89:55 = 1.6181

Mathematicians may also know this ratio as the Golden Rectangle. It’s defining trait is this: if you remove a square with dimensions equal to the shortest side of the Rectangle, the remains will yield yet another Golden Rectangle. This process, or pattern (also known as Fractal Forms), can be repeated infinitely, as shown in nature:

Da Vinci used this proportion to create his drawing of the Vitruvian Man. A particularly interesting note regarding this drawing, one originally stated by Vitruvius, is that when the legs are slightly opened and the arms are raised to equal in height with the head, the navel remains centered and the legs create an equilateral triangle (Stanford, 2002). What da Vinci added to Vitruvius’ dimensional descriptions were the circle and square, touching just the tips of the Man’s extremities. A seemingly simple addition, these shapes perfectly reflect nature’s rendering of the Golden Proportion.

Aesthetics calls this ration the “divine proportion” (Barry, A. M., 2006), which characterize the ratios of the ideal human face. Dr. Stephen R. Maquardt, expert on maxillofacial surgery, has performed cross-cultural surveys on beauty only to find that there is one unified perception on what constitutes a beautiful face. He bases this “beauty mask” off of, what else but, the Golden Decagon Matrix. While distinctive features may vary, history’s masters of the arts have mass-produced this divine proportion:

Surely, this cannot be a mistake. Is it possible that millions of artists, each with a religious, economic, and personal background, have produced the same face of beauty for over three millenniums?

Dr. Ann Marie Barry, expert in Visual Communication Theory and International Conference on Neuroesthetics speaker, believes this is no coincidence. “Aesthetics, neurology confirms, is a matter of proportion and transcendent emotional response,” (p. 136). Something feels “right” about these portraits to mankind. Similarly, mathematicians propose that the same feeling is generated when looking at the Golden Rectangle.

As stated by the celebrated British-American poet T. S. Eliot, it is “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion,” (1969, p. 100). Artists, therefore, have tapped into a neurological pathway that all humans own and can thus, relate to emotionally.

The Renaissance gave the world da Vinci, and da Vinci gave the Renaissance the world. The Vitruvian Man embodies all levels of the Golden Principles. This most elegant of ratios, 1:1.618, connects the divine, to man, to nature. Its success as a work of art can be attributed to the intrinsic aesthetic value of this universal ratio, making the piece a self-portrait for every living human.

Locating the Soul

Whether it is a religious, spiritual, or scientific pursuit (or pure curiosity), humans have long contested the location of the soul. Ancient Egyptians believed that it could be found in the heart, one of the few organs that they would leave in the body during mummification. In fact, the brain was extracted through the nose and discarded, while the heart would be preserved before placed back into the body (Buzzard, L. & Hiett, S., 2010; Nordon, J., 2007). Aristotle also argued that the soul was in the heart and that this presence could be felt physically through “heart-ache” and “gut feeling” (Pevsner, J. 2004).

Da Vinci thought otherwise. Motivated to enhance the accuracy of his portraits, he diligently recorded anatomical studies from careful observation during his dissections of corpses at several hospitals across Italy. While he was able to literally see the structure of the body, he was left to his own conclusions when it came to labeling specific physical and mental processes and functions.  Of these processes, he located the senses (imprensiva), common sense (senso comune), and memory (memoria). Although he unsuccessfully placed the exactly location of these functionalities, he managed to propose something of greatness, something revolutionary for his day: da Vinci also proposed that the soul resided in the brain.

By injecting wax into the brain and letting it dry, a process he learned as a sculptor, da Vinci was able to pull apart the brain tissue and discover the form of interior ventricles (Pevsner, J., 2002). He deemed these spaces of great importance, as he thought they were the containers of imprensiva, senso commune, and memoria.

It can be found in his notes that the imprensiva received nerve impulses created by visual stimuli, and that it would integrate the information with other sensory input before sending it to the senso comune (Pevsner, J., 2004). The process of imprensiva was completely novel for da Vinci’s time and strikes a strikingly close resemblance to what we now call perception.

The senso comune housed imagination and was the area at which all of the senses met. Da Vinci wrote, “the soul seems to reside in the judgment, and the judgment would seem to be seated in that part where all the senses meet; and this is called the senso comune,” (Richter, J. P., 1970). To him, consciousness was the soul.

How beautiful, this notion that the brain is responsible for the divine soul? And how true? Da Vinci believed that, “the eye is the window to the soul”, (Richter, J. P., 1970) because to see was to know, and to know was the soul. This direct connection between knowledge through sight as fuel for the soul is the epitome of neuroaesthetics. Zeki (1999) believes that the function of art and the function of the brain are the same, both are image making processes which produce meaning. Meaning is derived from the senso comune, and thus, the soul. Da Vinci required no technology in order to see this deep connection between vision, perception, and spirit. It was his curiosity and truly keen eye drove him to these inspirational and truthful conclusions.

“My works are the issue of pure and simple experience, who is the one true mistress.” – Leonardo da Vinci


Buzzard, L. & Hiett, S. (2010). Where in the human body is the soul located? BBC FocusMagazine. Retrieved Februrary 12, 2010 fromhttp://www.bbcfocusmagazine.com/qa/where-human-body-soul-located

Cognitive Dissonance Theory. (2004). University of Twente. Retrieved February 4, 2010from http://www.tcw.utwente.nl/theorieenoverzicht/Theory%20clusters/Public %20Relations%2C%20Advertising%2C%20Marketing%20and%20Consumer%20Behavior/Cognitive_Dissonance_theory.doc/

Curiosity. (2010). Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved February 7,2010, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/curiosity

Edelman, S. (1997). Curiosity and Exploration. California State University, Northridge. Retrieved February 7, 2010, from http://www.csun.edu/~vcpsy00h/students/explore.htm

Eliot, T. S. (1969). The Sacred Wood. Methuen, Fourth Edition

Loewenstein, G. (1994). The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation.Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 116, No. 1, 75-98

Nalbantian, S. (2008). Neuroaesthetics: neuroscientific theory and illustration from thearts. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 33(4), 357-368

Nordon, J. (2007). Understanding the Brain. Vanderbilt University School of Medicine,The Teaching Company DVD, Lecture 1

Pevsner, J. (2004). Leonardo’s Contribution to Neuroscience. The Pevsner Laboratory,Kennedy Krieger Institute. Retrieved February 12, 2010 fromhttp://www.davinciandthebrain.org/neuro.jsp

Place, R. (2000). Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Retrieved February 10, 2010 fromhttp://thealchemicalegg.com/VitruviusN.html

Richter, J. P. (1970). The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci. Phaidon. No. 836Semiotic Theories. (2004). University of Twente. Retrieved February 4, 2010 fromhttp://www.tcw.utwente.nl/theorieenoverzicht/Theory%20clusters/Public%20Relations%2C%20Advertising%2C%20Marketing%20and%20Consumer%20Behavior/Semiotic_Theories.doc/

Stanford (2002). Leonardo’s vitruvian man. Stanford University. Retreived February 11,2010 from http://leonardodavinci.stanford.edu/submissions/clabaugh /history/leonardo.html

Zeki, S. (1999). Inner Vision. New York: Oxford University Press, 10-12


4 responses to “Leonardo da Vinci: The Keen Eye

  1. Thanks for that … an excellent read !!

  2. Pingback: The Neurological Basis of the Euclidean Geometry « The Revolution of Mathematics

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