Limbs and Language Ability: Neuroscience meets Art History and Religious Studies

A fundamental problem in the history of Western art is the so-called “Putti Problem.” Simply put, how wings are represented in images of angels, putti, cupids, and other anthropomorphic denizens of the sky? Are the wings merely an add-on, like so many raver-boy costumes? Or are they an integral extension of the body, generally agreed on as an extension of the shoulder blade?

At Sanjusangendo, a famous temple in Kyoto, Japan, there are 1,001 statues of Kannon, a buddhist goddess with 1,000 arms. (If you are counting, that’s a little over a million arms total, or a megaarm.)

If these arms are independently controllable, as is implied by the fact each one holds a device to remove pain, that implies a significant amount of brain mass devoted to motor control. The issue here is that amount of motor-control brain mass may leave insufficient space for language ability, either speaking or comprehension. This is a religious studies issue because the lack of language ability means that you are unable to tell Kannon your hurts. And without the ability to communicate, how can she do her job?