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.
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.
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