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

Eric R. Kandel

  • Review
By – July 31, 2012

Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight is, in many ways, about a sim­ple action: stand­ing in front of a por­trait, gaz­ing at a paint­ing. But with this one act as a focal point, Kan­del takes us on an intri­cate but remark­ably lucid jour­ney through the many brain process­es that allow us to expe­ri­ence that paint­ing: to visu­al­ly inter­pret the two dimen­sion­al brush strokes as a three dimen­sion­al form, to under­stand that we are look­ing at a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a face and not an object, and to feel some­thing in response to that face, be it joy, dis­com­fort, or sad­ness. And in the telling of this enchant­i­ng tale about how a work of art can move us, he high­lights the impor­tance of ongo­ing dia­logue between sci­ence and art.

The book begins with an intro­duc­tion to Vienna’s pre­em­i­nent doc­tors and painters at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. In med­i­cine, Carl von Roki­tan­sky dug beneath the skin’s sur­face to find the under­ly­ing caus­es of ill­ness. In psy­chi­a­try Sig­mund Freud strove to under­stand the inner work­ings of minds. In the art world, the painters Klimt, Schiele, and Kokosch­ka devot­ed par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to faces and hands in their por­traits in order to cap­ture their sub­jects’ inner life on can­vas. Vien­na was scratch­ing beneath the sur­face to bet­ter under­stand life inside the body and mind.

Through uni­ver­si­ties and salons the discus­sion between the sci­en­tists and artists flowed freely. The salon of Berta Zuck­erkan­dl, wife of anatomist Emil Zuck­erkan­dl, was par­tic­u­lar­ly instru­men­tal in facil­i­tat­ing these exchanges. Artists and anatomists shared cof­fee and ideas and Vien­na became a sci­en­tif­ic and artis­tic hub.

But this Vien­na changed. Anti-Semi­tism became ram­pant and even­tu­al­ly dead­ly. When Ger­many annexed Aus­tria, and Kristall­nacht claimed many Jew­ish lives, the author and future Nobel-lau­re­ate (then just a child) left for Amer­i­ca with an ambiva­lence about Vien­na that fol­lowed him through much of his life. Vien­na had been home to inspi­ra­tional achieve­ments as well as haunt­ing brutality.

The first two sec­tions of the book are part art his­to­ry, part his­to­ry of sci­ence, with per­son­al infor­ma­tion about the sci­en­tists and artists woven into each tale. In part three Kan­del intro­duces the beholder’s share” and asks, what is the viewer’s role in expe­ri­enc­ing art? How does our visu­al sys­tem trans­form lines and splash­es of col­or into a face and body con­vey­ing emo­tions that seem to leap out from the can­vas and into our own beings? Kan­del shows us how the brain plays clever tricks to give us both a phys­i­cal and emo­tional illu­sion. He shows us the path­ways of infor­ma­tion from the can­vas, to the cones and rods in our reti­na, to the var­i­ous parts of the brain which inter­pret that visu­al infor­ma­tion. In part four we learn just how wired we are to respond to oth­er people’s faces, and how our own chem­istry pro­duces what we call emo­tion. The book comes full cir­cle in part five where Kan­del tack­les the nature of creativ­ity and the impor­tance of ongo­ing dia­logue between sci­en­tists and artists.

The breadth of the book is as aston­ish­ing as the clar­i­ty with which it’s writ­ten. It was a plea­sure to read all 500 pages, each craft­ed with care and infused with passion.


The nona­ge­nar­i­an Nobel Prize win­ning neu­ro­sci­en­tist dis­cuss­es the break­throughs in art, lit­er­a­ture, and sci­ence in Vien­na 1900 and their endur­ing impact.

Ada Brun­stein: Your book is about how sci­en­tists in Vien­na 1900 influ­enced artists of the same peri­od. It’s also about how our brain works to expe­ri­ence a por­trait. Why write about sci­ence and art togeth­er?
Eric Kan­del: One of one’s hopes as one begins to under­stand men­tal process­es in bio­log­i­cal terms is that it’s not only going to give us an under­stand­ing of our­selves but that it will form a bridge to oth­er areas of knowl­edge. The pres­i­dent of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, Lee Bollinger, feels this very strong­ly. He feels that to some degree every­body in the uni­ver­si­ty works on the mind; peo­ple in the busi­ness school study­ing deci­sion-mak­ing, peo­ple in law school study­ing reli­a­bil­i­ty in wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny, mem­o­ry, and so on.

I think it would be nice to have an ide­al syn­the­sis, a cou­ple of hun­dred years down the line, of sci­ence and non-sci­ence, that over­comes the bar­ri­er that C.P. Snow spoke about between the human­ists and sci­en­tists. With this book, I thought I would take the same approach that I take in my sci­ence, a reduc­tion­ist approach. I take some­thing quite large about learn­ing and mem­o­ry and then study a very spe­cif­ic exam­ple to try to get some insight into it.

I focused on por­trai­ture because we have a very good under­stand­ing of how faces are rep­re­sent­ed in the brain, and I lim­it­ed myself to the Vi­ennese mod­ernists—Klimt, Kokosch­ka, and Schiele — because they’re a very dis­crete school — there were only three peo­ple in the school — and they emerged at a very inter­est­ing time intel­lec­tu­al­ly when a new view of the human mind was emerg­ing. As an ama­teur intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ri­an, as some­body very fond of Vien­na 1900, and as a col­lec­tor of art from that peri­od, this was a per­fect top­ic for me to explore.

AB: What was so spe­cial about Vien­na at that time?
EK: I think in Vien­na 1900 a new world had emerged. Instead of think­ing of human beings as the Enlight­en­ment thought of them — as being spe­cially cre­at­ed by God, as unique bio­log­i­cal spec­i­mens, as super ratio­nal crea­tures — the mod­ernists influ­enced by Dar­win real­ized that there was an evo­lu­tion of species; that we are ani­mals like oth­er ani­mals and that we’re dri­ven by instincts very much like ani­mals are. Freud sys­tem­atized this and gave us a view of the human mind as hav­ing large irra­tional com­po­nents. This was a theme picked up by Klimt, Kokosch­ka, and Schiele, so you saw his devel­op­ment not only in sci­ence, psy­chol­o­gy, psy­chi­a­try, and psy­cho­analy­sis, but also in art. Although I don’t think they influ­enced Freud, because Freud was not inter­est­ed in con­tem­po­rary art, I think they were cer­tain­ly aware of Freud, if not direct­ly then through the zeit­geist he cre­at­ed. Togeth­er they gave us a com­plete­ly new view. While Freud knew noth­ing about female sex­u­al­i­ty, these artists had ter­rif­ic insights into female sex­u­al­i­ty, includ­ing the fact that women, like men, can feel hos­til­i­ty, aggres­sion, and sex­u­al­i­ty. I thought it was quite a remark­able set of insights. 

Ernst Kris’s daugh­ter Anna was a very good friend of mine and through her I got to know Kris. He was not work­ing in art at that point. The last part of his career he was work­ing pri­mar­i­ly as a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, but in the ear­ly phase of his career he was a major art his­to­ri­an. He actu­al­ly began psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic train­ing so he could com­bine the two. This raised the ques­tion: how do you make art his­to­ry more scientific? 

Klaus Riegl thought it was by bring­ing psy­chol­o­gy into it and, in almost a reduc­tion­ist way, focused on the behold­er. How does the behold­er respond to a work of art?

This caused a won­der­ful chal­lenge as it intro­duced the whole prob­lem of per­cep­tion. The artist paints on a flat sur­face but man­ages to con­vince us, through a vari­ety of skills and tricks, to see a three dimen­sion­al world. Many lev­els of men­tal process­es are involved in that process and two peo­ple look­ing at the same paint­ings see slight­ly dif­fer­ent things, which means that there’s ambi­gu­i­ty in art and that we each bring a some­what dif­fer­ent cre­ative process to it. That’s fascinating.

The idea that the behold­er under­goes a cre­ative expe­ri­ence in look­ing at art is qual­i­ta­tive­ly sim­i­lar to what the artist does, although on a small­er scale. Push­ing it fur­ther, this does­n’t just apply to look­ing at art. When we look at the world, the infor­ma­tion is incom­plete, yet through devel­op­men­tal process­es we make guess­es based on what’s to be expect­ed. That’s bot­tom-up processing.

But there’s also top-down pro­cess­ing. We have expe­ri­ences that we remem­ber, faces we’ve seen before, and we com­pare what we see now with what we’ve seen before. These are all things were worked out by Kris and Erich Gom­brich and laid the stage for neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal exploration. 

AB: Berta Zuck­erkan­dl and her famous salon played an inter­est­ing role in bring­ing togeth­er sci­en­tists and artists of the time.
EK: She also played an inter­est­ing role in my life. There’s a very good med­ical muse­um in Vien­na and the direc­tor is a woman called Sonia Horn and she said oh if you’re writ­ing on this you should read up on Berta Zuckerkandl.

She also told me that Zuckerkandl’s grand­son is alive; he’s a biol­o­gist at Stan­ford. So I called him up and he was just thrilled that I was ask­ing about his grand­moth­er. When I was in Palo Alto I looked him up. And he had things from her salon — a won­der­ful bust of Gus­tav Mahler by Rodin, and two won­der­ful etch­ings. So I saw part of the salon recreated.

Zuck­erkan­dl was very influ­en­tial. And she indi­rect­ly got Klimt inter­ested in biol­o­gy. Her hus­band was an asso­ciate of Roki­tan­sky, and Klimt became fas­ci­nat­ed by the micro­scope, look­ing at sperm and eggs, and he incor­po­rates those sym­bols into his art. I thought that was beautiful.

AB: Do you have a sense of who the mod­ern day Berta is? In the absence of her salons and oth­ers like them, do we have anoth­er forum for bring­ing togeth­er sci­en­tists and artists?
EK: Uni­ver­si­ty life is like that. We want to do this at Colum­bia. Bollinger, our pres­i­dent is cre­at­ing a new cam­pus. The first build­ing on that cam­pus is going to be a mind, brain, behav­ior build­ing. That will have an out­reach pro­gram and we’ve planned a PhD pro­gram in art and sci­ence. There’ll also be some­thing in the busi­ness school in terms of deci­sion mak­ing. So uni­ver­si­ties do this.

Book groups also serve this pur­pose. It used to be a tra­di­tion in Europe that women, par­tic­u­lar­ly Jew­ish women, would have these salons. My wife when she came to the Unit­ed States, before I met her, she ran a salon for a while. It was Jew­ish women who did it. They have this catholic inter­est in lots of things.

AB: Was it dif­fi­cult to write about a city you felt ulti­mate­ly betrayed you?
EK: I’m not sure I could’ve writ­ten this twen­ty years ago, in part because Vien­na was a dif­fer­ent city then than it is now and in part because when one matures you want to com­plete your life, you want to make a cir­cle out of your life and pull strands togeth­er that inter­est­ed you ear­li­er inso­far as you can. And I feel very dif­fer­ent­ly about Vien­na 1900 than I feel about Vien­na 1938. In 1900 Jews and non-Jews there inter­act­ed very freely.

I gave a talk in Ger­man once at the Rathaus in Vien­na, which is actu­al­ly shown in the film In Search of Mem­o­ry, based on my book by the same name. As I was get­ting ready to give that talk I got a short film clip from two Aus­tri­an stu­dents who have Prin­ci­ples of Neur­al Sci­ence, a text­book I wrote, and they said it’s win­ter­time and we’re ski­ing and we’re read­ing Kandel.

I invit­ed them to this lec­ture in Vien­na and I said, isn’t it won­der­ful we have these two fan­tas­tic stu­dents and I am their teacher and these stu­dents are not Jew­ish and I am a Jew and my dream is that we return to a peri­od in which Jews and non-Jews inter­act with each oth­er in a fruit­ful way that exist­ed when Vien­na was a great cul­tur­al center.

So this was a fan­ta­sy of mine that goes back some time because this was a mag­i­cal peri­od in which this spe­cial view of the human mind came out. Peo­ple like Schnit­zler and Freud were Jew­ish and a large num­ber of the sup­port­ers of Klimt, Kokosch­ka and Schiele were Jew­ish. To what degree it’s going to hap­pen I haven’t the fog­gi­est idea, but there’s cer­tain­ly much less anti-Semi­tism in Vien­na and the lead­er­ship con­sists of very open mind­ed and lib­er­al guys.

AB: You were in Vien­na dur­ing Kristal­nacht. The Holo­caust mantra is nev­er for­get.” You are famous for your work on mem­oryon what we remem­ber and for­get. How did those ear­ly expe­ri­ences shape your career?
EK: It’s hard to know to what extent but it’s not an acci­dent. It’s not an acci­dent I got inter­est­ed in psy­cho­analy­sis. There are no acci­dents. Freud was right.

AB: In your book you talk about the fact that there is a par­tic­u­lar region of the brain devot­ed to faces. How do you recon­cile what we know about how the brain process faces and what we know about the kind of vio­lence that has been com­mit­ted even while look­ing at inno­cent faces, as the Nazis did.
EK: I’ve thought a lot about this, as have a lot of peo­ple. The banal­i­ty of evil” is mis­stated but has a com­po­nent of truth in it. There is no banal­i­ty of evil. All evil is awful. But it’s the banal­i­ty of peo­ple who are evil. You and I are capa­ble of evil under cer­tain cir­cum­stances. It’s built into the human genome. So under social pres­sure one can do hor­ri­ble things for oppor­tunis­tic rea­sons, because you iden­ti­fy with the ide­ol­o­gy, because you’re pas­sive or scared.

One thing is that peo­ple who didn’t live in the ghet­tos of East­ern Europe and didn’t see Jews, saw them as a race apart. And I see that as a con­tribut­ing fac­tor: stereo­types. Also Lueger, who was the may­or of Vien­na, real­ized that anti-Semi­tism was a good polit­i­cal plat­form. So there are lots of things that give rise to that.

AB: There are the­o­ries that say art makes us more empa­thet­ic. Vien­na and Ger­many were cul­tur­al cen­ters when World War II broke out. How do we make sense of that?
EK: This is one of the great dis­ap­point­ments — it shows there’s no rela­tion­ship between cul­ture and civil­i­ty and this is trag­ic. It’s a dif­fi­cult ques­tion, how peo­ple can lis­ten to Hay­den, Mozart, Beethoven on the one hand and beat up on Jews on the oth­er is dif­fi­cult for me to under­stand but it happened.

AB: What’s next for sci­ence and you?
EK: We’re real­ly at the begin­ning of a great moun­tain range in explor­ing the human mind. We’ve made won­der­ful progress and sci­en­tists are delu­sion­al opti­mists so we think we’re going to get to the top of the moun­tain. But issues like con­scious­ness we’re just begin­ning to under­stand. So there’s an enor­mous amount of work to be done.

Discussion Questions