Summer 2012, ARTnews

Art and the Brain

Neuroscientist Eric Kandel analyzes our biological response to modernism

“I’ll be with you in just a minute. I’m telling a joke,” Eric Kandel says when I show up at his office at Columbia University’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute in New York. It’s an unexpected greeting from the Nobel laureate, but equally unexpected are Kandel’s charm and infectious laughter—as well as his latest book.

Kandel’s five previous books include one that has become a standard text on neuroscience. His new work, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (Random House), uses portraits painted by Viennese modernists to explore our perceptual and emotional responses to works of art. Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is on the cover.

Kandel, 82, was born in Vienna but fled the city as a youth to escape the Nazis. Nonetheless, he writes, his heart still “beats in three-quarter time,” and his research on Viennese culture and thought is motivated by an attempt to overcome the trauma of his childhood.

Wearing a burgundy bow tie and a blindingly white lab coat, Kandel ushers me into his spacious office overlooking the Hudson River. The Age of Insight, he says, was inspired by historian Carl Schorske’s Pulitzer Prize–winning work, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, which offers a magisterial overview of the intellectual ferment in the Austrian capital in the early 1900s.

Yet Schorske’s 1980 book makes scant mention of science. Kandel, who studied history and literature as an undergraduate at Harvard before devoting himself to neurobiology, hopes that his own book will help bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences. “A layman’s cognition textbook wrapped within a work of art history,” is how The Chronicle of Higher Education describes it.

Today’s advances in neuroscience are being applied to the visual arts as well as to many other fields, and Kandel, who won the Nobel in 2000 for his research into how the brain stores memory, synthesizes the work of several colleagues. He focuses on portraits by Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele to examine how our brains perceive a work of art and how each beholder responds differently to it. In this way, he picks up on earlier efforts by such Viennese art historians as Alois Riegl, Ernst Kris, and Ernst Gombrich, who investigated how artworks assume ambiguous meanings.

But Kandel takes the work of art historians in a new direction, using neuroscience to analyze the biological underpinnings of a viewer’s emotional response to an artwork. The later sections of The Age of Insight, illustrated with diagrams of the cerebral cortex and containing discussions of MRIs and PET scans, relate the neurological and chemical mechanics of what occurs in the brain after the eyes come into contact with art.

“The reason we respond differently,” says Kandel, “is that the brain is a creativity machine; it really makes up the reality of the outside world. It doesn’t reproduce like a camera; it decomposes it and then restructures it. In so doing, even though you and I see the world virtually pretty much the same way, there are slight differences in the way you and I do that. You can see that our brain is doing this reconstruction by the fact that you can trick it in a number of ways.”

Kandel’s own eyes (and neurotransmitters) have considerable familiarity with Viennese modernism, which has apparently released sufficient endorphins in his brain to turn him into a collector. He bought a Kokoschka portrait in 1964 after discussing the artist with Gombrich. He and his wife, Denise Kandel, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia, own many Viennese and German Expressionist works on paper and have filled their home in Riverdale, north of Manhattan, with French Art Nouveau furniture and decorative arts.

Kandel says he has been thinking about helping to start a new doctoral program within Columbia’s psychology department that would have students experiment with measuring neurological responses to art and conducting research to advance the burgeoning field of neuroesthetics.

But he insists that the power of art will not be diminished by scientific analysis. “People are frightened by science and art because they think that we’re going to dehumanize art,” he says. “I don’t think that’s my or most people’s intention. We see this as a way of enriching the esthetic experience and in no way denying its value in its own right. I would hope that art lovers could further enrich their experience of looking at works of art by understanding some aspects of biological mechanisms involved in perception, in emotional response to art.”