Your brain on art

Nobel laureate Eric Kandel on what Viennese painting tells us about neuroscience–and vice-versa

eric kandel
Eric Kandel

Seen from the outside, our deep relationship with art can seem bizarre: Why should a few notes arranged just so, or a few patches of color on a canvas, engage us so profoundly? This question drives the young field of neuroaesthetics, whose researchers are starting to explore how we use our brains to make art come alive.

In his new book, “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present,” Eric Kandel—both a Nobel laureate neuroscientist and a passionate art collector — uses the vivid Viennese painting of Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele to illustrate the surprising insights the field has generated so far.

One big insight is that the richness of artistic experience is rooted not in a marginal region of the brain, but in some of its most vital everyday functions. Artists feed different, especially provocative clues to brain systems we all use constantly. We have powerful circuits for recognizing faces, for example; an Expressionist portrait by Kokochka, Kandel argues, confounds them by using different parts of the face to convey distinct, conflicting emotions. Artists excel at combining brain systems which ordinarily work in isolation: Klimt’s famous portrait of the biblical heroine Judith is simultaneously meditative and exciting, sexy and frightening, and so, Kandel explains, it “activates a number of distinct and often conflicting emotional signals in the brain.” As a result, it ends up deeply imprinted in our memories.


But “The Age of Insight” is about more than scientific theories; it’s also a kind of autobiography. Kandel, a professor at Columbia University, was born in Vienna in 1929. He and his family fled Europe for the United States after Kristallnacht. In “The Age of Insight,” the 82-year-old Kandel uses the scientific knowledge he’s acquired since then to understand the artistic and scientific culture of his lost childhood home. What he finds in turn-of-the-century Vienna amounts to another, and in some ways more surprising, argument: that although “neuroaesthetics” might be a buzzword in universities today, it is at least a century old. Scientists and artists mingled together in Viennese salons. Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele were inspired by new discoveries in psychology to explore formerly underrepresented subjects, like unconscious emotions and female sexuality. Their paintings, in turn, helped show scientists how much they had to learn about the inner life.

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Today, art and science can seem like profoundly different realms. But Kandel’s book offers another way to see them: as two ways of thinking about the deepest and most fascinating questions humanity has had the imagination to ask.

Kandel spoke with Ideas in his office at Columbia.

IDEAS: Do you remember when you first fell in love with Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele?

KANDEL: I was dimly aware of them when I was a kid; my doctor had a Kokoschka etching in his office. Later, on Newbury Street in Boston, there was one art gallery, whose name escapes me at the moment, and I went in and saw a whole folder [of drawings]. It must have cost maybe $200, maybe more. This was 1963. I brought it home, and my wife said, “Where the hell are we going to get this money from?” So I kept one thing — a Kokoschka lithograph, which I still have. . . . Over time, we collected more.


IDEAS: You were born in Vienna. How much of your interest in Viennese art is personal?

KANDEL: I have a long-term fascination with Vienna — forgive me for reliving my childhood traumata! . . . But first of all, Vienna 1900 is a fantastic period. It’s like Florence in the Renaissance. The coming together of art and of science, and the ease of interaction, which was so wonderful, I find very inspiring.

IDEAS: Neuroaesthetics is controversial to some scholars; they say that art is too complex to be “explained” by neuroscience, which is still a blunt instrument.

KANDEL: The argument that’s raised against people like myself is that we take all the beauty out of art. . . . [But] you want to use a reductionist approach in parallel with other approaches. And who’s to say that abstraction, in which you “reduce” things to a few bars of color, is less spiritual? It’s really more marvelous, in a way!

I think some people might feel that when biology turns its attention to humanistic issues, like art, music, spirituality, and religion, it is entering a domain in which it’s incompetent to function, that it’s inappropriate and primitive in its approach. But biologists can approach these subjects in a very serious way, with modesty, and make significant contributions in a limited fashion.


IDEAS: What can neuroscience tell us about art that we didn’t know before?

KANDEL: It’s wonderful to be able to look at a work of art, and respond to it aesthetically . . . and then to see how the brain processes it, and gives rise to these aesthetic judgments. Inasmuch as we can get any insight into that, it enriches our understanding of it. It doesn’t replace it, but it enriches it.

[I think it emphasizes how] the brain is a creativity machine. . . . What art does is bring out the amazing creativity that’s inherent in every brain. . . . That is a surprise, when you think of it. Many people don’t think of themselves as creative. They don’t realize that intrinsically they’re creative, that in their everyday perception they’re creative. Because the brain makes guesses, it gets incomplete information from the outside world, just as it gets incomplete information from a painting.

IDEAS: When someone looks at a work of art, how is that reflected in her brain?

KANDEL: [Take] Expressionist art. . . . If you take anyone and exaggerate their features, they stand out more than if you to have a photograph of them. . . . Well, this is what Expressionism did — [and] if you look at the face patches in the brain, at the cells that respond to faces, they go wild if you exaggerate, if you bring the eyes together or if you move them further apart, if you make the mouth more profound, the cells respond more powerfully. The artist is picking up on the brain’s special features.

IDEAS: You think that’s no accident — that artists, like scientists, are working to understand the mind.

KANDEL: Artists have always been aware of the fact that the brain responds to [their work]. They may have called it “the mind,” now we say “the brain,” but they were working on [the same thing], they were playing with the response capability of the mind. When van Gogh began to use colors arbitrarily, he wasn’t a schnook! He wrote a whole letter to his brother saying, Wow, I can use color in order to convey powerful emotions.

IDEAS: You say that artists and scientists have more in common than many people think. They’re both empiricists, both experimenters.

KANDEL: Look at the Impressionists. . . . They were all experimenting! Monet painting the cathedral at all different hours of the day — it’s a scientific experiment! Painting haystacks at different hours of the day, to see how the rising sun and the setting sun cause completely different shadows, completely different effects. What’s the difference between what they do and what I do, except that they do it better?

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at