Many people believe that creativity comes naturally to those who possess it. Others, like Leonardo da Vinci, regard creativity as something we acquire by developing attributes and inclinations with which we are born. We've already discussed two of these attributes, curiosity and experience. Here we examine the role our senses play, and how they help us form images (of our world) from which we project creative intent.

According to Michael J. Gelb, author of How to think like Leonardo da Vinci, this third creative ingredient, sensazione, is the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience. All of da Vinci's experiences were vividly etched into his mind because he trained himself to do all things with eyes and ears open; seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling the entire scope of the event.

Nowhere is this behavior, sensazione, more apparent than in young children and infants. We all know that almost anything a baby gets its hands on goes into its mouth, and is clumsily squeezed and handled along the way. This often-humorous activity is science in its most natural and beautiful form, and the springboard to knowledge and creativity. One reason people stunt their creativity is that they simply grow up too quickly.

Leonardo da Vinci used his senses as more than input devices, however. He also made them the arbiters of reality; of what he put into his mind and, more importantly, what he chose to put his mind to. “To me it seems those sciences are vain and full of error that are not born of first-hand experience,” he said, “which in its origins, or means, or end has passed through one of the five senses.” If da Vinci couldn't see, hear, feel, taste, or smell it, he wasn't likely to develop much of an interest in it.

This may come as a surprise to many: Creativity, da Vinci style, is not about fantasy, illusion, or any other form of disconnected thinking. It is something that stems directly from reality, from the observable qualities of nature's design. Da Vinci firmly maintained that “all our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions,” separating himself from the free thinkers and sophists of his time; those given to fantasy, ignorance, and undisciplined theory.

Da Vinci's creative imagination was, above all, practical and scientifically inspired. It also adhered to some sort of guiding force that worked to focus and intensify his efforts. He called this higher order common sense, and by his words it is clear that he looked to it for direction. “Common Sense is that which judges the things given to it by other senses,” he wrote.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of practicing sensazione is that it makes us more visual thinkers. Like many great inventors, da Vinci “saw” the things he created before he sketched them out. As a result, he knew his ideas would work even before he built them, if indeed he built them at all. Today, with computers, many of da Vinci's ideas are being rigorously tested, and time after time, his designs are proving to be sound. Small wonder as da Vinci's inspiration came directly from an image of nature itself, an image we should all seek to develop by fully employing our senses.