(by Neel Burton)
Pretty much everyone is familiar with the ‘Creation of Adam’, even if they might not know that it is a section of a fresco painted by Michelangelo for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Like the Mona Lisa, the picture is so commonly parodied and depicted on T-shirts and postcards as to have become a piece of kitsch. However, what almost everyone has missed is the hidden message that Michelangelo inserted: a human brain dissimulated in the figure of God.
Although the Creation of Adam was painted around 1511, it is not until 1990 that Frank Lynn Meshberger, a physician in Anderson, Indiana, publicly noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the figures and shapes that make up the figure of God also make up an anatomically accurate figure of the human brain. Take a close look at the picture above and you will see the Sylvian fissure that divides the frontal lobe from the parietal and temporal lobes: it is represented by a bunching up of the cape by one of the angels and by a fold in God’s tunic. The bottom-most angel that appears to support the weight of God is the brainstem, and his trailing scarf the vertebral artery. The foot of another angel is the pituitary gland, and his bent knee the optic chiasm where the optic nerves from the eyes partially cross over. The ingenuity and level of detail is simply staggering, and a lasting testament to Michelangelo’s extraordinary—and, for the time, very unusual—knowledge of human anatomy.
Some have gone so far as to argue that the point at which the finger of God and the finger of Adam touch represents the synaptic cleft across which neurons communicate by means of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. However, the concept of bioelectricity only dates from the 18th century, when Luigi Galvani demonstrated that electrical stimulation of the frog sciatic nerve leads to twitching of the leg muscles. And it is not until 1921 that Otto Loewi discovered the first neurotransmitter (acetylcholine, which he called ‘Vagusstoff’), and thereby earned himself a Nobel Prize. So Michelangelo’s ‘synaptic cleft’ is either an uncanny coincidence or a remarkable prophecy.
In Michelangelo’s picture, God has been superimposed on the phylogenetically ancient limbic system which is the emotional centre of the brain and arguably the anatomical counterpart of the human soul. God’s right arm extends through the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of human reason and deliberation and so of the imagination and creativity that marks us out from all other animals. Another very human emotion that is linked to creativity is melancholy (see my recent TED talk, Can Depression be Good for You? Remarkably, Michelangelo has painted a forlorn looking angel in an area of the brain that is sometimes activated when a sad thought is experienced.
The Creation of Adam is traditionally thought of as illustrating the Biblical creation narrative from the Book of Genesis in which God breathes life into Adam (‘Earth’), the first man. However, the hidden brain in the picture could radically change this interpretation of the painting. Michelangelo might simply be suggesting that our brain is a piece or extension of God.