Stepping inside the mind: Da Vinci and the world of the human brain

Da Vinci, born in 1452, made “discoveries” throughout his life that, in most cases, reemerged and were published by researchers around 200 years after his death.

August 7, 2019 14:59
Stepping inside the mind: Da Vinci and the world of the human brain

LEARN ABOUT Leonardo via interactive mechanics systems with weights and ropes; a pulley illustrates the amount of force directed from an object.. (photo credit: YAEL ILAN)

I am passionate about museums. Whenever I make a visit, I run around like a child in a candy store. When I was given the opportunity to check out the Bloomfield Science Museum and explore their new “Leonardo’s Questions” and “Mind the Brain!” exhibitions, I jumped.

The experience was exciting and edifying. Normally when I leave museums, I take away a bit of interesting content and, over time, slowly forget about it. Not this time. The experience I had helped me take a new spin on both what it means to make discoveries as a curious thinker and the driving force behind those discoveries: the brain itself. It’ll be pretty hard to forget about this visit.

LEARN ABOUT Leonardo via interactive mechanics systems with weights and ropes; a pulley illustrates the amount of force directed from an object.  (Photos: Yael Ilan)

Leonardo’s Questions: Curiosity and discovery make the world turn.

One of the first statements I heard at the museum’s “Leonardo’s Questions” exhibition threw me off quite a bit.

“Leonardo did not contribute a lot to science,” said Damon Schusterman, an expert on da Vinci and a primary curator of the exhibit. As we stepped through the exhibit’s first room, “Leonardo’s Theater” starting at interactive life-size models of da Vinci’s inventions sketched in his various codexes a few centuries ago, Schusterman’s statement didn’t seem to make much sense.

“None of his inventions contributed to any technological revolutions,” he added. These models included a drum machine, where a timpani drum was mounted with three mallets with a turning crank to control the device. Of course, da Vinci’s famous air-screw machine was there, too (sorry, it still can’t fly).

It was, admittedly, crazy to hear his impact on the world wasn’t as robust as I had imagined, as I’ve always thought that da Vinci was one of the greatest scientists of his time. As we continued examining da Vinci’s inventions and his way of thinking, however, it all began to come together for me.

“As a science museum, we can see Leonardo as a great scientist because he made many discoveries,” Schusterman explained. “But he didn’t share or publish them.” Da Vinci, born in 1452, made “discoveries” throughout his life that, in most cases, reemerged and were published by researchers around 200 years after his death.

“He discovered something, wrote it down in an [unpublished] manuscript, and Leonardo scholars would discover it later,” Schusterman said, emphasizing that he didn’t contribute to science “in the sense that people knew more just after he discovered something.”

EVERY BRAIN has around 86 billion neurons that communicate with each other.

So what made the museum build an extravagant, three-room exhibit spanning three floors in memory of this not-great scientist?

“The reason why we feel it’s important for visitors to know about him in this context of a science museum is because of his curiosity,” said Schusterman. “He was the most curious man in the world.”

As we continued into the second room, “Analogies in Nature,” his statement became clearer: Every element built for each exhibit was designed to move or have its movement visualized with Leonardo’s thought process brilliantly evident.

The first standout feature of the room involved a large tree with its roots and branches graciously suspended above the exhibition’s floors. As Schusterman explained, da Vinci’s upbringing as a man who learned hands-on technical skills as opposed to traditional school education led him to look for patterns in the world as a means of discovery.

In this pattern-like way of thinking, da Vinci mapped the human circulatory system by comparing the shape of tree roots to blood vessels; this concept only developed officially in the 1970s when computers created the first images of the heart and circulatory systems without the need for surgical procedures.

Leonardo da Vinci was also known for his interest in man’s ability to fly. Suspended above me in another corner of the room was a model of his famous flying machine, reconstructed by hand by artists Itamar Mendes Flor and Naphtali Radzynerand, spanning nine by five meters long. Just in front of me were a scale and a computer screen with a cartoon pterodactyl on it.

“Leonardo thought that if a man used wings with good enough mechanics, he’d be able to lift himself up in the air,” said Schusterman.

There were foam wings with handholds on the ground just below. So, I grabbed the foam wings and, for the first time ever, after much effort, I was flying.

Just kidding. Unfortunately, the concept isn’t that simple.

But, Leonardo had a point! As I flapped the wings while standing on the scale, the computer screen showed that I was pushing upwards against the ground and that I was getting lighter. Ideally, if I were to flap rapidly enough, I’d be able to take off. Unfortunately, we were able to prove only that renewing my gym membership was a good idea.

I ASKED Schusterman about the process of recovering da Vinci’s recording and observations. To my surprise, only 7,000 pages of his writings have been preserved. 21,000 pages were estimated to be written in total, according to historical accounts, leaving historians to wonder what else the mastermind of curiosity came up with in his lifetime.

My fascination was maintained as we progressed to the exhibit’s final room, which emphasized the role of da Vinci’s ability to make observations about physical mechanics and optics. Schusterman had me sketch a stack of blocks through a viewing lens to demonstrate perspective drawing techniques Leonardo used as an artist. These same techniques were applied when he painted the world-famous Mona Lisa.

Within the room, there were various interactive mechanics systems with weights and ropes. I was asked to lift a large mass of blocks using a pulley system, an idea Leonardo contributed to the world via only a sketch. Without the pulley, which is designed to change the amount of force directed from an object, it was much harder to lift the mass.

“Work equals force times distance,” Schusterman said, explaining the mathematics of the pulley to me. Great – now we have two recorded examples indicating that I need to get back to working out.

The curators, which include Schusterman and Dr. Amir Ben Shalom – the technical designer behind the exhibits – went as far as Italy and France to learn about other da Vinci exhibitions, which inspired them to design Bloomfield’s with the curiosity angle. The exhibit is Schusterman’s first major project with the museum; he has been there since 2001.

Oh, did I mention I built my own flying machine with a rubber band and propeller? Yes, such an activity offered by the museum is meant for people on the younger side, but I enjoyed showing off my creation to the children around me.
Exploring the world of da Vinci is affordable, too: Kids under five years old enter for free; all other ages are NIS 60.

Ropes, weights, the human heart, and even flying - it’s made me develop a newfound appreciation for da Vinci and his way of thinking. He died 500 years ago this past May, and the exhibit shows that his ideas and his method of thinking live on.

Mind the Brain – It only gets more complicated from here

As part of an international collaboration project with the European Union and over 130 global research centers, it took the curator team nearly three years to research, develop and present the one-room masterpiece that is the “Mind the Brain!” exhibit at the museum.

A major player in the Human Brain Project, the museum’s exhibit is designed to expose and educate the public on brain research. As a traveling exhibition curated and produced by museum staff and PhD students, it infused me with questions about the mysterious world of neuroscience and brain studies.

“This project is going to make a revolutionary impact,” said Tal Marom, the museum’s deputy director for business development. “We need to educate the public about the most important organ in their body.”

The room, where people of all ages can learn about brain functionality, brain research and ethics, sported an impressive mix of stations on the brain, including an interactive video where visitors can control firing neurons to encourage or discourage a person from jumping off a diving board.

The coolest station involved participants taking the role of a doctor to figure out whether or not to diagnose patients with Alzheimer’s, the progressive disease in which memory loss takes presence and cognitive abilities severely weaken.

“Dr. David, right?” Yair Deitcher, one of the PhD students who curated the exhibit, said to me as the station’s activities began. Yeah, right. It took me only 20 seconds too long to decipher the results on the screen and conclude the patient didn’t have the disease.

It’s a good thing students like Deitcher, whose knowledge of the human mind is unparalleled, took a role in the exhibit and the research community as a whole.

“There are physics, biologists, mathematicians and neuroscientists in this – you need a community in order to research,” Deitcher said. “I have a passion for the brain; almost everything we do happens because of it,” he added.

“Every brain has around 86 billion neurons that communicate with each other; it’s a very complex organ,” he said explaining the challenges in taking complicated topics and making them intelligible for the general public.

The exhibit, designed for people ages 12 and up, includes a station where guests can view various parts of the brain and their functionalities. Guests can also view pictures of neurons right down to the single-cell level.

Ethics education was also a unique goal of the project, according to Deitcher, who said the topic itself invites many ethical questions just from research.

“We really want to hear what the public has to say,” Marom said. An entire station in the exhibit is dedicated to public input, where visitors can answer questions about brain research ethics via a sticky note. Such questions discuss the use of certain technologies in researching the brain.

The room’s most notable feature was a ticker screen built above the exhibition. Similar to share prices at a stock exchange, it tickers facts about the brain in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. New research insights about the brain are also displayed.

“Maybe one day I can go to the lab and learn something new about the brain that no one else in the world knows,” Deitcher said. “This is a way of letting the public know we found something new.”

It was made clear to me from this that the curator team, which included Deitcher, alongside deputy director Varda Gur Ben Shitrit and Ph.D. student Yoav Matov, knew what they were up against in building a room designed to expose the public to the world that is the human brain.

“My mother used to say to me, ‘It’s all in your mind,’” Marom said. “She’s right, it literally is all in my mind!”

Despite the years of research devoted to the exhibit and to brain studies altogether, Deitcher said there is still much to learn.

“When you think about the network of neurons from lab experiments, we still don’t know how brain activity translates to actions,” he said, “Hopefully in the next few years we will understand it.”

For now, though, visitors can check out this unique exhibit and learn all they can until its closing next month on September 22.

“It’s not just up to one institute or one team of researchers to understand something so complex,” Marom said. “In a few years’ time, I want us to have a mega exhibition where we can confidently say, ‘Yes! We understand the brain!’”

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