Bookshelf: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Art

Filley, Christopher M. MD

Neurology Today:
doi: 10.1097/01.NT.0000415611.66519.54
Author Information

Dr. Filley is professor of neurology and psychiatry and director of the Behavioral Neurology Section at the University of Colorado-Denver School of Medicine.

The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. By Eric R. Kandel. 656 Pages. Random House 2012.

At Cambridge University in 1959, the British physicist and novelist C. P. Snow delivered the Rede Lecture on “The Two Cultures” that would gain lasting fame for its vivid description of the wide gap between the sciences and the humanities. Pointing out the mutual incomprehension, suspiciousness, and even animosity he perceived between those who seek to understand the nature of the universe and those who focus on the nature of human experience, Snow highlighted an intellectual divide that can still be seen to exist today. In this book, the Nobel laureate Eric Kandel offers a stunning antidote to this divisive situation, blending neuroscience and the humanities into a masterful synthesis with much to offer readers on both sides of the intellectual chasm.

The Age of Insight is an engaging scholarly treatise on parallel developments over roughly the last century in brain science and humanistic endeavor. A central concern is the role of the unconscious, which is, in the author's view, key to both traditions.

Kandel begins his account in the extraordinary intellectual milieu of Vienna in 1900, where Sigmund Freud was formulating the transformative theory of psychoanalysis, and the Austrian expressionist painters Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele were producing evocative pictures dealing with eroticism, aggression, anxiety, and death. Also part of this wide intellectual circle was Arthur Schnitzler, a writer who had worked as a physician with Jean-Martin Charcot before turning to literature, and whose novels boldly explored the unconscious sexuality of women.

The common theme espoused by these figures, Kandel writes, is the search for truth lying hidden beneath the surface. Influential in the genesis of this movement was the Vienna School of Medicine, most visibly represented by the physician Carl von Rokitansky (1804–1878) who introduced the routine practice of combining clinical examination with autopsy results so that the underlying cause of disease could be discovered. Kandel explains how this approach informed the humanities as well as medicine, facilitated by the cultural atmosphere of the era that encouraged intellectuals from diverse fields to meet and exchange ideas in the salons and coffeehouses of Vienna.

With this background, Kandel proceeds to consider subsequent advances in neuroscience that have illuminated the biological foundations of art — including Gestalt psychology, visual perception, theory of mind, mirror neurons, social cognition, empathy, face recognition, neuroesthetics, and creativity. Implicated in this discussion is the work of many prominent scientists and physicians — Charles Darwin, John Hughlings Jackson, William James, Stephen Kuffler, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, Antonio and Hanna Damasio, Howard Gardner, Semir Zeki, and Oliver Sacks.

Kandel presents intriguing observations on the neurology of art — discussing neurologist Bruce Miller's work on the emergence of artistic creativity in frontotemporal dementia, the strikingly unexpected talents of savants, and the relevance of dyslexia and prosopagnosia to the paintings of Chuck Close.

Kandel is a distinguished neuroscientist best known for his foundational work on the neurobiology of memory, but the astonishing range of his intellect beyond the laboratory is abundantly clear. His training as a psychiatrist is obvious from the beginning, as he discusses Freud's ideas with confidence and measured but steady enthusiasm. Neurologists may take exception to the acceptance of much of Freud's oeuvre — there is even a figure showing the putative cerebral loci of the id, ego, and superego — but Kandel's major goal is to highlight Freud's notion of the unconscious as instructive for making sense of both science and the arts. Influenced by the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who wrote that “One might almost believe that half of our thinking takes place unconsciously...,” Freud vigorously promoted the idea, and Kandel documents how this advocacy has been vindicated by considerable work since then, including the intriguing finding of the readiness potential by Benjamin Libet in the 1970s, and more recent functional neuroimaging studies on unconscious visual perception.

Kandel's knowledge of the humanities is equally impressive. He is most attracted to the visual arts, and beyond the Austrian expressionists, his thorough familiarity with the works of artists ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Vincent van Gogh permeates this book. Kandel is particularly intent on discussing the unconscious perception of art, which in his view accompanies its conscious perception just as everyday life involves both conscious and unconscious forms of thinking.

Indeed the viewer receives as much attention in this book as the artist. Kandel frequently emphasizes that the beholder's response to art is as crucial as the artist's creation. This process of perception also implicates the unconscious, as the viewer's brain automatically remodels what the artist has created. An emotional connection develops, and the experience of pleasure follows as the brain of the beholder and the artist participate in the same physical and psychic reality.

Another frequent theme is that understanding the biology of the arts does not diminish their importance or value. To those who would contend that knowing why a painting is beautiful detracts from the enjoyment of its beauty, Kandel would reply that beauty also derives from the insight of grasping its biological origin. Artists need not recoil from efforts to probe the neurobiology of art and, likewise, scientists should maintain appropriate admiration for artistic works resulting from the neurons, chemicals, and brain networks subserving creativity.

As the book proceeds, Kandel also reflects on the often problematic dichotomy of reductionism versus holism. Kandel is undoubtedly a highly successful exemplar of scientific reductionism — as his highly acclaimed work on the tiny nervous system of the mollusk amply demonstrates; but he also sees the bigger picture of brain science as it relates to human life. He is willing, for example, to consider not only how a viewer perceives a painting through the symbolic capacity of the brain, but even how a brain can be a “creativity machine” drawing upon unconscious as well as conscious processes. A panoramic breadth of knowledge characterizes this book, a singular blending of its author's passionate devotion to both neuroscience and the visual arts.

Kandel turns to the two cultures problem in the final chapter. Invoking the Greek maxim to “know thyself” — displayed over the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi — he ardently champions the value of striving to understand philosophical questions in the light of contemporary cognitive psychology and brain biology. The modernist thinking of the Viennese intelligentsia around 1900 took pioneering steps in this direction, and the steady advances of neuroscience since then have accelerated progress. A compelling modern version of this synthesis can be found in the work of the evolutionary biologist E.O Wilson, for whom the word “consilience” expresses the goal of a productive dialogue between science and the humanities. But this task is far from simple, as a reading of this superb but challenging book demonstrates.

We are a long way from fully understanding the operations of the brain as it enables humanistic experience, but this ambitious and exhilarating volume can inspire those who wish to pursue how these connections can be more securely established. In a time when cross-disciplinary barriers still threaten to stifle intellectual advances, the integrative spirit of this book invites scientists and humanists to participate as equals in the life of the mind. The two cultures are as one in Kandel's polymathic vision, each richly enhanced by their unification.

©2012 American Academy of Neurology