The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present by Eric Kandel

Artists and neuroscientists alike will be drawn to The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand The Unconscious In Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to The Present.  Author Dr. Eric Kandel, a Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and Nobel Laureate in Medicine, argues that the time is ripe to pursue questions in a new, interdisciplinary field of neuroaesthetics.  This field would address neuroscientific questions about how the brain processes perceptual information, especially when that information carries emotional salience. Also, neuroaesthetics would help artists understand more deeply the critical aspects of emotion and the perceptual information that captivate the mind and brain.  The field could ultimately lead to new and creative art forms.

Kandel uses turn-of-the-20th century Vienna as an exemplar of the productivity of a cultural and intellectual milieu that facilitates cross-pollination among painters, writers, psychologists, doctors, and other intellectuals.  Using the tools of their respective disciplines, Vienna’s elites began exploring unconscious human mental states.  They turned inward to grapple with their own internal emotional and thought processes. Social gatherings at salons, like those hosted by Berta Zuckerkandl, were fertile ground for the exchange of ideas. Among the Viennese intellectuals Kandel examines are:  Carl Von Rokitansky, a doctor who espoused the view that medicine should be rooted in sciences (rather than philosophy) and pioneered the practice of literally looking inside a person to understand disease;  Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese writer whose works focused on themes of eroticism and relied on stream-of-conscience and inner monologues; and Sigmund Freud, who is well-known for delving into deeply rooted human motivations and desires.

Kandel focuses in particular on three Viennese modernist painters:  Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoscka, and Egon Schiele. Through their portraits they showed what an emotion feels like and how it is experienced.  They depicted faces, often with emotionally ambiguous expressions. The brain’s processing of faces is well researched. Nancy Kanwisher’s research from about a decade ago suggested that there is a particular region in the inferior temporal cortex of the brain, known as the fusiform face area, that responds strongly and specifically to viewing faces. Kandel draws on the fact that both art and neuroscience have a deep understanding of the importance of faces in order to help illustrate the ways in which art and psychological and brain sciences can learn from one another. Portraiture may serve an evolutionary purpose by offering practice in reading faces, a skill that psychologists suggest is important for using clues about avoiding threats and finding rewards.

Alois Riegl, an art historian in Vienna, introduced an idea now known as the “beholder’s share”.  Riegl believed that there is a collaboration between an artist and the viewer of his art; without both parties, the artwork is incomplete.  This idea is compatible also with the German Gestalt psychology movement, which created abstruse images in which it is possible to see two different objects (e.g., the Rubin Vase that depicts either a vase or the profile of two men facing one another). In this way, the viewer’s mind fashions the image that he sees as much as the image’s creator chooses the subject of the image.  Kandel states that what we perceive about the outside world is as much inferred as it is observed.

Kandel details the brain and neuronal bases for our perceptual abilities.  Vision begins in the eye and the optic nerve and involves several brain areas (including the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus and the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe). He describes the function of photoreceptor cells called rods and cones; rods detect light and the three different types of cones facilitate color discrimination. Kandel describes the cues we instinctively use to understand depth, like comparing the relative size of objects or comparing the size of an unfamiliar object to a familiar one. Artists draw on these visual habits and use lines and contours to help viewers perceive three-dimensional shapes on a two-dimensional surface.

Just as the modernist artists explored how people experience emotions, so too have biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists examined how the brain and body process emotions. Klimt, Kokoschka, and Shiele were able to reveal their subjects’ internal feelings.  Neuoroscience suggests that mirror neurons help us imitate another person’s behavior, which is a first step in developing a theory of mind—the ability to understand another’s internal thoughts and goals.

Kandel argues that through various means artists and scientists try to reduce the world to its component parts in order to make it more comprehensible. This newly proposed field of neuroaesthetics might shed light on the nature of conscious and unconscious thought, the nature of creativity, and the relation between consciousness and creativity. Kandel calls for the recreation of environments like the Zuckerkandl salon with the fluid exchange of ideas across disciplines.  Neuroscientists, artists, and beholders of art alike will benefit from attempting to bridge the chasm between science and art.

category: Book Reviews

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