"The Age of Insight": Nobel Laureate Explains How Our Brain Perceives Art

Many strands of Eric Kandel’s life come together in his latest work, "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present." 

Record Staff
Video by Columbia News Video Team
May 11, 2012

 The 82-year-old University Professor and co-director of the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative was born in Vienna, where, as a boy of 8, he witnessed the Nazis march into the Austrian capital. Decades later, he recalls how much his own intellectual interests were shaped not only by the Holocaust that followed, but by the cosmopolitan city that in the early 1900 served as an extraordinary incubator for creativity and thought that shaped the world we live in today.

From the Modernist painters Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele to the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, a new view emerged of the human mind. Indeed, before Kandel plunged into research on the neurobiology of memory, which would win him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, he had aspired to be a psychoanalyst himself. As he pondered the mission of Columbia’s Mind Brain Behavior Initiative—to connect biomedical sciences with the arts, humanities and social sciences—he came to see that our contemporary understanding of human behavior can be traced directly back to fin de sécle Vienna 1900, particularly in its emphasis on the unconscious and irrational aspects of the human mind.

And it didn’t hurt that he and his wife Denise, who survived the Holocaust as a child in France, have long been art collectors who own small works by Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele, as well as by other German Expressionists.

Indeed, Kandel’s 600-page work is dedicated to his wife, a professor of sociomedical sciences in the Department of Psychiatry at the Mailman School of Public Health. “I discuss beauty and I say everyone gets pleasure out of looking at a beautiful face, and I use a photograph of Denise when I first met her,” he says. “I mean she is, and she was, for me remarkably beautiful. And one of the things I enjoyed in our friendship when I first met her is that, in addition to our very wonderful relationship, she was just so pleasant to look at.”

Q. What made you decide to turn your attention to the neurobiology of how we perceive art?

There are many motivating factors. One was my longterm interest in Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele, the three Austrian Modernists, my fascination with Vienna 1900 and with Freud. I wanted to become a psychoanalyst and I’m Viennese so I sense a shared intellectual history, particularly with turn-of-the-century Vienna. But the immediate stimulus actually came from [Columbia President] Lee Bollinger. The idea behind the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative is to try to understand the human mind in biological terms and to use these insights to bridge the biology of the brain with other areas of the humanities. Lee expressed the belief that the new science of the mind could have a major impact on the academic curriculum, that in a sense everyone at the University works on the human mind. I felt I was doing this for personal reasons, but isn’t it wonderful that it is also in line with one of the missions of the University?

Q. How did your own personal history in Vienna lead you to think about these questions?

Part of it is coming to grips with the traumatic experience of one’s life. I am tempted as I reach my maturity to make a complete circle of my life and to reach out in efforts of reconciliation. When I received the Nobel Prize, the phone rang off the hook. A lot of calls were from Vienna. They said, “Isn’t it wonderful? We have another Austrian Nobel Prize.” And I said, “This is an American Nobel Prize, an American Jewish Nobel Prize.” So the then-president of Austria wrote me and said, “What can we do to recognize you?” And I said, “I don’t need recognition but I would like to have a symposium at the University of Vienna on the response of Austria to National Socialism.” While I was there I was struck by the fact that the University of Vienna sits on a part of the Ringstraße called the Karl Lueger Ring, named after Vienna’s mayor in the early 20th century, who taught Hitler that anti-Semitism is a fantastic political platform. So a number of other people and I argued that it was improper for the University, the moral citadel of the country, to be sitting in Lueger Ring. [In April 2012] there was a public announcement—Lueger Ring was changed to University Ring.

Q. Was there something about fin de siécle Vienna that nurtured ferment across intellectual and cultural life?

It was a synthesis of many strands, and the reason the ferment occurred is because Emperor Franz Joseph lifted travel restrictions throughout the empire and many of the young and gifted came to Vienna. That explosion in the arts, science, music, economics and philosophy occurred as a result of this influx of talent. The view of the human mind that we now hold in 2012 derives from Vienna 1900. Freud and his contemporaries, including the artists I deal with, point out the importance of the irrational aspects of human behavior. I think Modernism had many sources, but it had a distinctive flavor in Vienna, and that was the emphasis on the complexity of human behavior. Vienna in 1900 had fantastic cultural institutions—a great opera house, concert house and wonderful museums, all within walking distance of one another. There’s an intellectual life within and outside the university. An important part of that are the salons. Women, often Jewish women, ran salons that brought intellectuals together. Vienna had a very famous salon run by Berta Zuckerkandl. She loved Klimt’s work, and he often came to her salon. He learned biology from her husband, who was a colleague of [Carl von] Rokitansky, one of the heroes of my piece. Rokitansky stimulated Freud to look below the surface of appearance and try to understand what was really going on—which is the theme of Vienna 1900 in all of its guises.

Q. How can the lens of neuroscience help us understand something as ineffable as art?

Alois Riegl, a great art historian in Vienna in 1900, drew attention to the important problem of “the beholder’s share”—how the viewer responds to a work of art. The artist tries to give you the illusion that you’re seeing the real world in three dimensions in natural color when he’s actually working all the time on two dimensions and with artificial color. To figure out how the brain creates this illusion is a fantastically interesting problem. Two of his students, [art historians] Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, pointed out that what the brain does is recreate the work of art. When you look at a work of art, you’re undergoing the creative challenge that the artist undergoes in making the picture. It’s of a lesser magnitude, but the information coming in through the eyes is incomplete, and you have to fill it in with built-in rules of what is possible in the world combined with previous experiences that allow you to situate this correctly. This requires an immense degree of creativity. They realized the brain is a creativity machine. Subsequent neuroscience has absolutely confirmed that.

Q. Why is there a focus on portraiture in the book?

Faces have extensive representations in the brain, and we know from an evolutionary point of view why. Most of our interactions are through the face. By looking at you I can tell your age, your sex, how you’re responding to my comments. Social interaction is in large part determined by facial expression. So the brain has special machinery for dealing with faces. We can recognize the differences in a thousand faces. There are six different patches, little islands of brain tissue, that respond only to faces—95 percent of the cells respond to faces. If you do what the Expressionist artists did—exaggerate, spread the eyes apart, make the mouth larger—the cells go wild, they love it. What the Expressionist artists did was to fuse exaggeration with high art, knowing we respond very powerfully to caricatures. Knowing all of this allows us to enjoy looking at the painting more than if we didn’t know about it.

Q. Can you give us an example of a painting you like that triggers this kind of response?

Using Klimt as an example, we can speak about all the others. Freud did not understand female sexuality. Klimt did. Klimt’s women please themselves. The realization that women have an independent sexual life was an insight in art. In the book I compare Klimt’s drawing to the historical depiction of the female nude. It’s like day and night. Klimt also began to incorporate biological themes into his work. He was very much taken with the fact that the sperm and the ovum are different, and he symbolized sperm in rectangular lines and ova in circular lines. If you look at Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer [the book’s cover] behind me, you’ll see that on her dress there are ova, symbolizing her own fertility, and on the side of her you have these rectangular lines indicating that she’s receptive, at the peak of her sexuality.

Q. You open the book with a note on how the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative encourages interdisciplinary thinking , which is why the Jerome L. Greene Science Center is being built, but are there others at Columbia, outside the sciences, with whom you’re already working?

[Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art] David Freedberg, who’s also doing a book on art and science, and I are friends, and we are in discussions with [assistant professor] Daphna Shohamy in Psychology about the possibility of encouraging a Ph.D. program that would bring together psychology, which is the core discipline, with art history and neuroscience. I think bringing the three together in the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative would be wonderful. Once it gets a little bit further along, we’re going to discuss it with the rest of the faculty to see whether there’s support.

Q. How will the PBS television series "The Brain" that you cohost with Charlie Rose continue to bring neuroscience to a general audience?

I think the scientific community needs to make an effort to explain its science to the public. Not only because science is supported by the public, but because science is essential in an informed democratic society for people to make intelligent decisions about their future. [Science journalist] Jonah Lehrer (CC’03), Charlie and I are planning to turn the series into a book designed for the general public.

Q. You mentioned the confluence of your book and the University’s interdisciplinary mission. Why has Columbia been a good place for this kind of work?

Columbia has a fantastic faculty in brain science and wonderful people in the humanities. If you look at the history of Columbia University, this is not the first time it has provided interdisciplinary leadership for the country. Modern genetics began here with Thomas Hunt Morgan. Margaret Mead pioneered cultural anthropology. Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and more recently Fritz Stern, Brian Greene and Joe Stiglitz, are people who speak out on difficult issues to the general public. This has characterized Columbia over the years. So what we’re trying to do is really a Columbia tradition. I’m not sure I would’ve written this book if I were not at Columbia. It is just a fantastic place to work. You have colleagues who read your work and are very honest. When you’re writing about something that you’re essentially pioneering, it’s easy to get lost. It’s nice to have honest critics who want to help you so you don’t make a fool of yourself.