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 memory—on 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.
Ada Brunstein is the Head of Reference at a university press.