Sunday, February 8, 2009

Michelangelo's depiction of the brain

After I finished my first post titled "In the beginning", I was looking at it when in an epiphany I realized that the shape of the "cloud" that God is in looks like a human brain. At first I thought I was reading too much into this, but the more I looked at it the more I came to feel that this was some sort of artistic symbolism that Michelangelo had employed in his iconic fresco. I felt as if I had discovered something important, but still was not quite sure of the connection.

Then I was reading through an article on AI and came across a picture of a human brain and immediately I flashed back to the depiction of God and Adam. This time I felt the connection was so strong that it must be obvious and it must have occurred to someone before. So I did a quick Google search of "adam creation michelangelo god brain" and bingo! There it was. In 1990 Dr. Frank Lynn Meshberger had made the same exact observation in an article titled An interpretation of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy". (JAMA 264:1837-1841, 1990)

[I was]... immediately struck by the shape of the image surrounding God and the angels. It was the same thing I had been working with all day! It was the unmistakable outline of the mid-sagittal cross-section of a human brain.

So my choice of image was much more significant than I could have possibly imagined. But what did Michelangelo intend it to mean? This we will never know. One interpretation is that it represents God as a higher intelligence which then bestows this intelligence on Man - "in his own image". It is after all intellect which distinguishes Man from the "Beasts".

Or it could be that Michelangelo is implying that God exists in the brain of Man. This might have been a popular philosophical undercurrent during the Renaissance, although it would seem to be more appropriate to the Age of Reason in the 17th century which followed the Renaissance. In Michelangelo's time, such a view would have been deemed heretical. Would Michelangelo have risked expressing such an unholy concept, even if done through symbolism?

The first clue for me was the dangling foot which seemed so appallingly unaesthetic. Meshberger associates this with the pituitary gland. The interweaving figures which support God seem to represent the folds in the outer gray matter of the brain. Meshberger with his knowledge of neuroanatomy goes into much greater detail.

Until I looked through the transparency I didn't realise that one of the angel's backs was the pons, that the legs and hips were the spinal cord... The knee of the flexed right leg of the angel with the bifid foot represents the transected optic chiasm, the thigh the optic nerve and the leg itself the optic tract...

If Michelangelo were alive today, perhaps he would make a movie depicting Man imparting life to his AI creation.

No comments:

Post a Comment