(above: a page from the journal of Leonardo da Vinci)
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein
Inside each of our heads sits one of the most powerful machines known to man: the human brain. Its power comes from an interconnected network of cells which enables us to think, move, and experience the world. Every single thought strengthens and develops these connections, and the more connections, the more powerful the brain becomes.
Physically the brain is separated into two halves, connected by small bundle of neural fibers. It is generally believed that the left half of the brain performs logical, scientific, and detail oriented thinking while the right is responsible for more creative, intuitive, and big picture tasks. Although there is some overlap, these broadly accepted distinctions are the basis of “right brain/left brain” thinking.
Scientists also know that the left half of the brain controls the right half of the body, and the right half of the brain controls the left half of the body. This has interesting implications when combined with general right brain/left brain thinking. Writing or drawing with the left hand would require using the same half of the brain that processes creative tasks, which may be why “lefties” tend to be drawn to careers in the arts, music, sports, and information technology fields.1
By using both hands equally one would benefit from an increased use of both sides of the brain. In coordinating and balancing the body, someone who is ambidextrous strengthens the connections between brain halves. “Balance the body, balance the brain.” suggests professor Raymond Dart in Michael J Gelb’s How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. “The future lies with the ambidextrous human!” He suggests that coordinating the two sides of the body would promote the coherence and balance of the two hemispheres.
Leonardo da Vinci is someone who understood the power of this practice. He had an unquenchable curiosity for the world and a creative imagination which helped him to become a master painter, sculptor, scientist, inventor, musician, architect, botanist, cartographer, and engineer. His work includes the Last Supper and Mona Lisa, designs for a helicopter, calculator, concentrated solar power, and great advances in almost every field he studied. Although he was a natural left hander, he was famously observed switching his brush back and forth between his hands while painting his masterpieces. Da Vinci “cultivated the balanced use of both sides of his body,” writes Gelb. “Painting, drawing, and writing with both hands, he was psycho-physically ambidextrous.”
Perhaps the greatest example of da Vinci’s ambidexterity and uniqueness can be found in the way he wrote: backwards. To most people his journals seemed to be filled with a strange and incomprehensible text. However, when held sideways up to a mirror, reversing the direction of the writing from Right/Left to Left/Right, his native Italian appears as if by magic.
There are several theories as to why he wrote like this. Perhaps it was because as a left hander, writing in the typical manner would have caused his hand to smear ink as it was laid on the page. Or maybe he wanted to keep the contents of his journal a secret from prying eyes. Alternatively, and perhaps my favorite theory, is that it helped to fuel his amazing creativity.
While writing in this way was by no means the source of his brilliance, the unique style would have supported its development. By writing and reading text in a different direction than those around him, Leonardo’s brain became adept at interpreting information in new and unusual ways. Coupled with the balanced use of both hands, the rich network of connections between brain cells may have encouraged novel ideas and unique perspectives that could be applied to almost any field.
With the goal of increasing my creativity, learning how to write left handed, training my brain to process information in new ways, and eventually being able to read el maestro’s writing, I learned how to write like Leonardo da Vinci.
How to Write Like Leonardo da Vinci
Learning to write like Leo involved two major tasks: learning to write with my left (non-dominant) hand, and learning to write backwards. Both would require repetitive practice, which I added to my morning and evening journal habit. This allowed me to get some practice in the morning when my brain and body were fresh, as well as in the evening when sleep would help solidify the lesson. Sleep is important, as science has shown that physical skills are better learned when practice is followed by sleep within four hours.2
Step one: Learn basic characters
Repeatedly writing the alphabet would get boring, so I started by writing several pangrams, or sentences that contain every letter of the alphabet at least once. Besides the most well known “The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.” I added another english pangram, as well as one in both Spanish and French for good measure. I’m fluent in both of those languages, and I figured it would help me bridge the gap into da Vinci’s Italian when the time came. This left me with 4 sentences containing every letter of the alphabet.
- The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.
- Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.
- Es extraño mojar queso en la cerveza o probar whisky de garrafa. (Spanish)
- Buvez de ce whisky que le patron juge fameux. (French)
Instead of jumping straight into writing with my non-dominant left hand, each practice session I wrote the sentences in mirror with my right hand first, followed by the left. After a few weeks I was writing a bit faster, so I added the alphabet to the sentences, as well as the numbers 0-9.
Step two: Increase proficiency by learning groups of letters
After a few months I stopped seeing speed improvements, so it was time to mix things up. Armed with a basic grasp of the alphabet, the next step was moving onto the most common groupings of multiple letters. As Josh Coffman describes in The First 20 Hours. “Within most words, there are common sets of two- and three-character groupings that appear over and over again, like TH, AN, ING, and NCE. […] groupings are called n-grams (or sometimes n-graphs): ‘n’ is a variable that stands for the number of characters you’re grouping.” Focusing on the most common n-grams was like doing an 80/20 analysis on letter frequency, and would translate into improvements for speed and efficiency.
Josh was able to locate a list of the most common n-grams in a book titled Cryptological Mathematics by Robert Edward Lewand (2000). They are listed below, in order of frequency of usage.
Digrams (2): th, he, in, en, nt, re, er, an, ti, es, on, at, se, nd, or, ar, al, te, co, de, to, ra, et, ed, it, sa, em, ro.
Trigrams (3): the, and, tha, ent, ing, ion, tio, for, nde, has, nce, edt, tis, oft, sth, men
When written in the style of Leonardo da Vinci, it looks like this:
Step 3: Incorporate into normal use
While continuing to practice the n-grams, and in order to maintain a high enough practice load, I started incorporating da Vinci writing into normal use. One form this took was writing down memorable quotes I wanted to remember in left handed, right to left text. Other times I simply used da Vinci writing as my style of choice when noting down thoughts, ideas, or my daily journal practice.
It’s been several months since starting this experiment. While I still do most writing with my right hand and in the “correct” direction, I continue to write like da Vinci several times a day.
Although I don’t have any hard data (something I would add were I to do this again), I am noticing creative insights more frequently. I’ve also seen significant improvements in left hand coordination, something which can be easily verified by comparing the legibility of writing from when I first started to today.
Then again, even my normal handwriting isn’t particularly legible. At least now, to borrow from author Jarod Kintz, “I’m ambidextrous. I can write just as poorly with either hand.”
If you are interested in books related to this topic, I recommend:
How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J Gelb
- Walker, Matthew P., and Robert Stickgold. “It’s Practice, with Sleep, That Makes PErfect: Implications of Sleep-Dependent Learning and Plasticity for Skill Performance.” Clinics in Sports Medicine 24, no. 2 2005: 301-317 accessible online at http://walkerlab.berkeley.edu/reprints/Walker_ClinSportsMed_05.pdf [↩]