(originally appeared in The Norwalk Patch)
Have you ever started a project with great gusto only to be distracted, or to switch to something else midstream? Fear not. You are in good company when it comes to an inability to complete projects. Leonardo Da Vinci, arguably the world’s most famous polymath, needs no introduction in terms of his achievements, but was also known for having great difficulty completing tasks. Then again, few people would quibble with having a painting like The Adoration of the Magi on their list of unfinished works.
Today, Da Vinci has been immortalized in the world of fiction by the author, Dan Brown, as a code-writer rather than immersed in scientific, engineering, and artistic endeavors. Who knows? Maybe Brown subconsciously drew some of his inspiration from Da Vinci’s well-known mirror-writing skills. Mirror-writers, mostly left-handers or ambidextrous people, are able to write in the opposite direction and backwards to that of normal writing, so that the text can only be easily read when held up to a mirror. Some people, mostly children in the early developmental stages, or patients with neurological or psychological disorders, may engage in partial mirror writing, i.e. letters or numerals written in reverse appear occasionally in otherwise normal writing (1). There are also anecdotal reports of possible genetic links and a surprisingly high prevalence of mirror writing among normal people (2).
Habitual mirror-writers like Da Vinci have been the subject of numerous scholarly works on neurological phenomena. They are often compared with transient mirror writers like Reverend Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll, author of the children’s classics,Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. Carroll occasionally penned “looking glass letters,” as in the poem, Jabberwocky, presumably as an artistic device to entertain children. Carroll’s contrived writing appears far removed from the faithful mirror images emblematic of Da Vinci’s writings in his notebooks, and probably involved different neural mechanisms or other causes (3).
It may be fashionable to group unusual behaviors of famous figures in categories marked “disease” or “disorder,” however, there is no doubt that the origins and content of Da Vinci and Carroll’s writings will continue to fascinate scholars and laymen alike.
1. Nakano, M., T. Endo, and S. Tanaka, A second Leonardo da Vinci? Brain Cogn. 2003, 53(1) 9-14.
2. Schlott, G.D., Some neurological observations on Leonardo da Vinci’s handwriting. J Neurol Sci. 1979, 42 (3) 321-9.
3. Larner, A., The Neurology of ‘Alice.’ ACNR 2006, 4(6) 35-36.