The motion of emotion: da Vinci knew it well

by | Jun 29, 2021

Words are fascinating. We send and receive them so freely and most often don’t consider their origin and literal meaning. “Emotion” is a huge word in the mood and anxiety disorder neck of the woods. So huge it begs a closer look. With the help of Leonardo da Vinci, let’s explore…

I wrote this article three and a half years ago and it remains popular. It’s one of my favorites. I decided to freshen it up a bit and bring it to you again. I – and Leonardo – hope you enjoy it.

Etymology: we’ll call it the science of words. I think it’s really interesting. Fact is, every so often we come upon a word to which slicing and dicing brings a deeper – helpful – understanding. Emotion is one of those words.

Let’s get started with a definition from Merriam-Webster…

A conscious mental reaction (such as anger and fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.

I’m thinking we emotion experts can accept that definition.

The etymology of emotion

Okay, let’s get all etymological…

The word “emotion” was born in the 12th century. In the Latin, emovere: move out, remove, agitate – movere: to move. Over the following hundreds of years the word transitioned through Old and Middle French, and the meanings included moving, stirring, agitation, stir-up, and move.

Interestingly enough, “strong feeling” didn’t enter the picture until the 1650s. And the meaning was stretched to “any feeling” in 1808.

Interplay of mind and body

I believe the spirit here is one of movement – motion. But that makes sense, doesn’t it? Don’t know about you, but I firmly believe in the interplay of mind and body (as though they were ever separate entities). I mean, our emotions are expressed through our bodies and our bodies express themselves through our emotions….

  • We become frightened and pump adrenaline, our heart begins to race, and we stiffen-up. We feel something terribly uncomfortable in our chest, and fear and panic intensify.
  • We get angry and our neck tightens, we tremble, and we may attack. That nagging neck stiffness and pain won’t stop and we become angry.
  • We feel joy and smile or reach-out for a hug. The hug is so good that we feel joy.
  • We’re sad and we sense a lump in our throat – or cry. Certain hormone levels become unstable and suddenly we’re sad.

The lesson here is simple: We can’t forget the interplay of mind and body – emotion and motion. Emotion is expressed physically, as the physical is expressed emotionally.

da Vinci: the master of motion

What are emotions

da Vinci self-portrait c. 1505, 53 years old

Walter Isaacson’s marvelous book, Leonardo da Vinci, is the source for the following. If you’re looking for a great summer read, your search is over.

da Vinci: painter, sculptor, inventor, architect, engineer, scientist, writer – and diligent observer and recorder of life. It’s extremely difficult for me to fathom such a gifted human being.

As da Vinci’s talent and cultural impact progressed, he pioneered a new style that treated narrative paintings and portraits as “psychological exhibitions.”

According to Isaacson, da Vinci wanted to portray not only moti corporali, the motions of the body, but also how they related to what he called atti e moti mentali – the attitudes and motions of the mind. And he was a master at connecting the two. Isaacson offers The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa as examples.

da Vinci was hugely influenced by Leon Battista Alberti’s book, On Painting. In the book, Alberti observed, “Movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body.”

Enlightened, da Vinci jotted-down the following in his notebook…

The good painter has to paint two principal things, man and the intention of his mind. The first is easy and the second is difficult, because the latter has to be represented through gestures and movements of the limbs.

The movement which is depicted must be appropriate to the mental state of the figure. The motions and postures of figures should display the true mental state of the originator of these motions, in such a way they can mean nothing else. Movements should announce the motions of the mind.

How do you treat depression

da Vinci brain sketches: c. 1508

Isaacson tells us that da Vinci’s mission in portraying the outward manifestations of inner emotions not only ended-up driving his art, but his anatomical studies as well.

For instance, when Leonardo dissected a brain he would try to figure-out the precise location where connections were made between sensory perceptions, emotions, and motions.

It’s believed that by the end of his career, da Vinci’s pursuit of how the brain and nerves turned emotions into motions became near obsessive. Isaacson wrote, “It was enough to make the Mona Lisa smile.”

I think da Vinci’s brain work and sketches are fascinating. Come on, what kind of genius is that? Do you agree?

da Vinci’s depression

One has to wonder: was da Vinci’s fascination with emotion just another curiosity or was it a natural manifestation of his depressive struggles?

The signs are definitely there. Isaacson cites da Vinci’s inability to finish two pieces: the Adoration of the Magi and Saint Jerome in the Wilderness. Perhaps they were left unfinished because of his melancholy or depression. Heck, maybe his inability to complete the paintings contributed to it.

But there’s more: Isaacson reveals that da Vinci’s notebooks c. 1480 are filled with expressions of gloom and anguish. On a page that includes a drawing of a water clock and sundial he wrote…

We do not lack devices for measuring these miserable days of ours, in which it should be our pleasure that they be not frittered away without leaving behind any memory of ourselves in the mind of men.

da Vinci began scribbling this phrase over and over again in his idle time…

Tell me if anything was ever done…Tell me…Tell me.

And at one point he went so far as to write…

While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.

Around the same time, a friend wrote a very personal poem for da Vinci. “Leonardo, why so troubled?” was written in the introduction.

Finally, da Vinci entered this quote from someone named Johannes into his notebook…

There is no perfect gift without great suffering. Our glories and our triumphs pass away.

That’s a wrap

The emotion and motion connection – mind and body interplay. I really wonder if we understand it, much less its power. I also wonder if we understand how to put it to work as we wrestle with our mood and anxiety discomfort.

Seems Leonardo da Vinci at least tried…

The Last Supper and da Vinci self-portrait images: Brain sketch image: Neuroscience News

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