What made this illegitimate son of a peasant girl and a notary to become one of the most famous artists, inventors and scientists who ever lived? We all know Leonardo de Vinci (1452-1519) as a famous artist (e.g. The Mona Lisa, The Sistine Chapel and The Last Supper). His talent is world-renowned and his work is priceless. We also are aware of some of his inventions, and attempts to invent, such things as the airplane. What is lesser known are his contributions to the field of science and neuroscience.

A true Renaissance Man, both because of the time he lived and also his ability to be prolific and excel at so many different genres.  His interests were diverse, and he thought outside the box for his time, which was why he was able to allow himself to see things others did not.

His observations into the workings of the body and the mind are the basis for much research today. He discovered how the circulatory system was structured and ran by injecting hot wax into the veins of an ox was revolutionary! With this he was the first to define the shape and size of an internal working body structure.

His artistic skill and eye served him well in dissecting human cadavers. 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. This skill led to his drawings of the musculature and circulatory system of the human body that is still used in anatomy classes today.

Da Vinci’s energy was limitless when it came to asking questions and searching for answers. He was a master at observation, which led to more questions and discoveries. He had an insatiable desire to learn as much as he could about everything he observed. He described himself as a “disciple of experience,” which meant he learned from experiencing, experimenting and observing everything he came in contact with.

He was a meticulous note taker, and even wrote down the most minute details. This proved invaluable to later generations, even though he protected his work by using codes and ‘mirror’ images in his writing. 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.

DeVinci’s was most intrigued by how the body functions, and the brain developed. Although he was an independent thinker he still held on to ancient teachings in some things that cause scientists of today to dismiss a lot of his work. They can’t dismiss his observation that the brain was the key to “understanding the relationship between the senses and the soul (the brain being the soul).” This observation is what research is finding to hold true 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.”

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.

This is Ron White. I am a two-time USA Memory Champion. Leonardo da Vinci holds a place in science as well as other fields. Although he was not as appreciated for his scientific work largely due to his ancient-held beliefs, there is no denying his work and notes are the root of many research projects today.




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

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

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

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