Learning from Leonardo

Da Vinci's Genius Habits

Leonardo da Vinci's Sensazione: Awakening Your Senses

By Linda Dessau | Posted 2/6/06 | Updated 4/6/23

Da Vinci's Genius Habits

Da Vinci's continuous refinement of his five senses enhanced his ability to work and think.

As artists, we get to play in the land of the senses as often as we allow ourselves to. And our gift to the world is that we help others to engage their senses through what we create.

The “Sensazione” section of Michael Gelb's How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, is dedicated to re-awakening and sharpening each of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

So how is it that many of us, even artists, have ended up with our senses deadened? To fully experience the sensory and sensual thrills that surround us, we need to be aware of them. We need to be open to being perpetually surprised. We need to nurture the feelings of awe and wonder.

Da Vinci took great care to create an environment that nourished every one of his senses. Nothing was there by chance. (I've written about how to set-up an inspiring creative space in Connect With Your Surroundings.)

And it's just as important to change your sensory inputs regularly, whether that means going somewhere new or reconfiguring what you see in front of you in your studio space. Surprise yourself with something new!

Gelb offers lots of exercises to help you awaken your senses. My favourite is “Subtle Speculation: The Art of Visualization.” He explains:

“The ability to visualize a desired outcome is built into your brain, and your brain is designed to help you succeed in matching that picture with your performance. And the more thoroughly you involve all your senses, the more compelling your visualization becomes.”

When I guide clients through a meditation or visualization exercise, I encourage them to evoke elements from all of the senses. If we're imagining the ideal creative space or studio, I ask them, “What does it smell like?” along with, “what do you see?” and, “what do you hear?”

One of my music professors at university used to encourage us to practice mentality. I found myself doing that the other night before a performance playing a duet with a music therapy client. It's amazing how well it works. I know that even though my hands didn't touch the piano, that short refresher of where they would go once they DID, helped me to feel more prepared AND to play the piece flawlessly.

It's also been proven that even as you imagine your body exercising, your brain is busy sending and receiving messages to your muscles just as if you were actually lifting those barbells or stretching that calf.

Because of that research, when I do movement to music exercises with my music therapy clients who have hemi-paralysis (one side of their body is partly or completely paralyzed), their impulse often is to repeat movements on their “working” side. I encourage them, instead, to focus on the side that's paralyzed, and to ‘imagine’ that side of their body doing the movements.

Gelb also introduces da Vinci's concept of “Synesthesia”, the merging of the senses. What would your painting sound like if it were an opera? How would that b-flat blues taste if it were a soup? What colour is your first chapter? How would your sculpture feel and look if it were wrapped around you like a cloak?

Many accomplished artists have one or more complimentary art forms that they regularly practice. I know for myself that the act of creating, in any form, sparks my creativity in all mediums. Once I open myself up to the sensory exploration, I'm rewarded by a renewed awareness — an awakening of the senses.

Copyright ©2006 Linda Dessau. All rights reserved.

How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day

Da Vinci's Art and Science

Using both sides of your brain.

Da Vinci's Sfumato

Opening to experience.

Da Vinci's Dimostrazione

Learning from your mistakes.

Da Vinci's Corporalita

Taking care of your body

Da Vinci's Sensazione

Awakening your senses.

Da Vinci's Connessione

Seeing the connection in everything.

Da Vinci's Curiosity

Being curious about everything.