• Robb G. Best

The Real Da Vinci Code

Leonardo Da Vinci was born in Vinci, April 15th, 1452. In his lifetime, he painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He was a sculptor, musician, engineer, scientist and inventor. His sketchpads were filled with designs for helicopters, tanks, parachutes, paddleboats, bicycles, and even a repeating rifle.

By the time he died sixty-seven years later, he was considered to be one of the greatest minds of his century. Today there is plenty of support for the idea that Da Vinci might be, in fact, the greatest mind of all time.

So what was it about Da Vinci’s brain that made him so unique? Michael J. Gelb, writer, lecturer and Da Vinci scholar, believes he knows the answer. In How to Think like Leonardo Da Vinci, Gelb suggests that the Maestro followed seven principles that are part of the secret to his success. Gelb summarizes the principles like this:

“Curiostia—An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.

Dimostrazione—A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.

Sensazione—The continual refinement for the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.

Sfumato (literally ‘Going up in Smoke’)—A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.

Arte/Scienza—The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination. ‘Whole-brain’ thinking.

Corporalita-- The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.

Connessione—A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.”

Gelb writes, “Leonardo developed astonishing powers of sight bordering on those of a cartoon superhero. In his 'Codex on the Flight of Birds,' for example, he recorded minutiae about the movements of feathers and wings in flight that remained unconfirmed and not fully appreciated until the development of slow-motion moving pictures.”

Talk about Da Vinci for longer than five minutes and the word "genius" tends to come up. The two go together like a palette and an easel.

But what is a genius, anyway? Where do they come from? In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle suggests we've been thinking about it all wrong. Greatness is not born, he argues, it’s created. Gelb’s observations about the way Da Vinci lived his life correlates very strongly with how Coyle describes programming the brain for optimal learning and retention.

According to Coyle, mastery of a given subject matter requires a driving passion for learning, a willingness to break the process into tiny increments with intense focus on each one, and after all that, regularly practicing at the very edge of mental endurance. Coyle writes that this regime lets you accelerate your learning at a rate ten times greater than the average person.

Look back at the seven principles. Curiostia is a hunger for learning. Dimostrazione involves hands-on testing and practicing toward improvement. Sensazione requires minute concentration. And in order to practice connessione, or "systems thinking"as Gelb describes it, you need to be able to understand the pieces of the system, the interlocking parts that make it up.

Coyle's "talent code" ultimately comes down to the right sort of practice, the right sort of repetition. When we perform an action over and over, whether it's holding a paintbrush the right way, drawing a straight line, or inventing a flying machine, we send a signal to the brain: this is important. And so those particular neural pathways get another layer of insulation, via a fatty substance called myelin. The more insulation, the faster and more reliably those pathways can fire. Get your pathways working well enough and you too could create a Mona Lisa or Last Supper.

In short, Coyle concludes, "Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals." If genius is simply a surplus of skill, then based on Gelb’s findings, Da Vinci might serve as the poster child for Coyle’s talent code formula.

Apparently Da Vinci, the quintessential renaissance man, might deserve yet one more twenty-first century accolade: Leonardo Da Vinci, The Master of Myelination.

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