We are fascinated by people who seem to have incredible talents and intelligence and this is obvious by the number of hugely successful TV shows with incredible minds as the main characters; Da Vinci’s Demons, House, Suits, Sherlock, Numbers, Prison Break and quite a few others.
Most of these TV shows however explain that characters with incredible cognitive skill were almost always born that way. Very little time goes into showing how skill was developed.
One of the oldest Psychological debates is the Nature vs. Nurture question, are we born with certain behaviours and personalities or do we develop them as we grow, influenced by our upbringing and environment.
Intelligence, like confidence is something we all wish we had a little more of, but is there a limit to how intelligent a person can be? Can someone BECOME a genius, or are they born that way?
Unlike the rest of the TV shows listed above however, Da Vinci’s Demons does hint at his learning through experimentation and Sherlock shows the titular character performing various experiments to gain his knowledge.
Historians love Leonardo, he is the world’s most revered and famed genius and there is always something new to discover about his experiences and talents.
Da Vinci however, being a historical figure has been heavily idolised and investigated. Leonardo’s genius will always come under scrutiny. Most people who have encountered Da Vinci’s vast interests and works have wondered how they could think like Da Vinci.
Luckily, Da Vinci left behind a plethora of notes and works for us to examine and and through examining his notebooks and the way he lived, author Michael J. Gelb discovered that there were 7 methods that Leonardo employed, to get the results he is famous for. Gelb calls these the 7 Da Vincian Principles:
- Curiosita’ (Curiosity) – an insatiable curiosity
- Dimostrazione (Demonstration) – testing knowledge through experience
- Sensazione (Sensation) – continued refinement of the senses
- Sfumato (Mystery) – a willingness to embrace ambiguity
- Arte/Scienza (Art/Science) – developing a balance between art and science
- Corporalita’ (Corporeality) – cultivating fitness and poise
- Connessione (Connection) – recognising that all phenomena are connected.
From a young age, Leonardo was incredibly curious, famously infuriating his teachers will the sheer volume and depth of his questions. Leonardo’s curiosity led him seamlessly from one subject to another and prompted him to ask many questions and then find the answers.
Sometimes the best ideas and innovations come from asking the simple question “What if?” Imagine how the world would be if “What if we take a telephone and make it portable?” was never asked.
This is how we learn as we grow up. We explore anything we’re interested in with energy and enthusiasm. Da Vinci maintained his curiosity throughout his life prompting him to explore and experiment in many different disciplines.
Picasso once said:
All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
He was a firm believer that everything should be tested through experience before a fact can be fully accepted (within reason). Being the son of a notary, Da Vinci was taught to read and also had access to books. He taught himself Latin and when Leonardo was interested in a subject, he would read accounts from as many field experts as he could find and then proceed to test every theory, not taking their expertise for granted.
This is something we rarely do today, if an expert says something on TV, we almost always blindly accept, because, well, they’re an expert! Obviously we can’t test everything and question every fact or theory, but within reason we should aim to test and explore things for ourselves, before accepting them.
Fundamental to Leonardo’s discoveries was the belief that all senses should be continually refined and exposed to new experiences. Every once in a while, pause when eating and focus on the texture of your food and the taste.
Do this for each of the senses aiming to expose them to one new feeling each day. Da Vinci would take notes on things that he had eaten, taking down every detail he could. This made his mind deft at noticing the smallest details, an invaluable skill in artistic and engineering pursuits.
New experiences also give our brains new building blocks for ideas, can help break stagnating though patterns. Uncommon and unexpected events promote flexible and lateral thinking.
Imagine that your brain is soil and each new experience adds nutrients to the soil. The more nutrients available and the easier it is for seeds (ideas) to plant, grow and blossom.
Mystery surrounds Leonardo and his willingness to embrace mystery and uncertainty is legendary. Just think of the Mona Lisa, because of the soft shadows around her eyes and the corners of her mouth, we can never be quite sure of what mood she is in.
Is the Mona Lisa a portrait of Isabella d’Este of Mantua as claimed by Giorgio Vasari (30 years after Leonardo’s death)? Is she a composite of all the women ever known by Da Vinci? Or is the Mona Lisa a wonderful feminised self-portrait of Leonardo himself? We’ll likely never know. It is possibly the mystery surrounding the painting that gives it such incredible value.
Did mystery increase Da Vinci’s intelligence and cognitive skill? Likely not, but it mastery control of mysery certainly made him appear to others as far more able and skilled than an ordinary man.
Leonardo is largely famous for 2 pursuits, painting and engineering. He was a huge advocate for the combination of art and science. Even before the suggestions of left-brain and right-brain thinking, Leonardo believed that a balance between the 2, a whole brain thinking method, was the best balance. One way to have use this principle (as suggested in Think Like Da Vinci) is to construct mind-maps, using pictures and words in combination.
When you think of an artist today, usually you picture a painter or a strange sculpture in the Tate modern, but back in Da Vinci’s day, artists were expected to have studied a variety of disciplines. Da Vinci’s study of such a wide range of topics was not unique, but the depth and skill he went to was.
It was also using the two in tandem which led Da Vinci to his most famous inventions. He became fascinated by the human foot and it promoted him to say:
The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.
His interest in the foot led him to engineering and studying engineering drove him to investigate flight. He turned to nature for his inspiration prompting his studying the flight and movements of birds and other animals.
For Da Vinci art and science were the same thing as one invariably inspired and influence the other.
A surprising part of Leonardo’s principles was Corporeality, fitness and grace. Leonardo was reported to have stopped a pair of horses in full gallop with his bare hands by grabbing the reigns. This is demonstrated somewhat in the TV show Da Vinci’s Demons highlighting the young artist’s ambidextrous fighting skill, his grace and his fitness.
Leonardo knew how much physical health affected mental health and was constantly improving his physique. As a skilled and experienced chef, Leonardo nutrition was also excellent.
Hundreds of studies have produced the same results that Da Vinci and countless others have known for centuries, a healthy body supports a healthy mind.
The energy that comes from keeping fit and eating right powered Da Vinci throughout his life.
The final principle is the one I believe contributes most to intelligence; Connection. The ability to see the connection and relationships between different situations is incredibly important and some people have become great simply from their ability to connect to previously unconnected ideas (e.g. Jeff Bezos with Amazon.com).
One definition of an idea is “the new combination of existing ideas”. In marketing, the ability to create connections can separate a good marketer from a marketing maverick.
Connection is invariably linked to sensations and having new experiences, the more stimuli you take in, the more components you can connect together to produce ideas. I explore this in my post How to Think Like Don Draper.
If you want to think like Da Vinci, embodying his principles will certainly get you on the right path:
If you enjoyed this post, you should definitely pick up Michael J. Gelb’s book Think Like Da Vinci: 7 Easy Steps to Boosting Your Everyday Genius, it’s a wonderful book and can really open your mind. Also, if you want to gain a better understanding of Da Vinci himself, you can pick up translations of his Notebooks for less than £10.