My year ended on a high note, by finishing a most remarkable book – Eric R Kandel’s The Age of Insight – The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present. The timing of this book was remarkable for me because it happened on the same year when my primary focus was to find a bridge that I can use to cross at will between my two passions – science and art. Right after I wrote a blog on this topic (Artists without Science), my Art Historian friend Arjun Gupta recommended the book to me. I immediately grabbed it and started reading, but quickly realized that it is not a book that I should read quickly, during my long daily commute, but rather cherish as a good bottle of wine, slowly, deliberately, and take my time to explore the art that the author uses to illustrate his point. (There was also a practical side to it – the book was too heavy to be carried around).
Let me start with the author. Eric Kandel is a neuroscientist who has been doing some of the most remarkable work in his field, and during a time where there is a revolutionary explosion of new ideas, theories, and experimental results that are changing our view of the mind in the most fundamental ways. Kandel’s work on the mechanism of memory also earned him a Nobel Prize in the year 2000. What makes Eric Kandel unique is not only his scientific authority, but also his deep understanding of the history of visual arts, and his knowledge and understanding of one of most remarkable time and place when it comes to modernist art – Vienna around the turn of the last century.
Kandel starts the book with a detailed recounting of Vienna around 1900. It was a remarkable place and time when a number of brilliant people came together, each passionately involved in understanding the human mind, but from entirely different perspectives, and most unusually, they actually talked and exchanged ideas. There were philosophers like Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Gödel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, musicians like Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg, architect Otto Wagner, writer Arthur Schnitzler, and artists like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka. A common theme that connected these individuals were the evolving understanding that much of what happens in our mind is below the level of conscious thought. The new scientific ideas prompted the artists to look deep inside and explore and expose what is hiding deep within our minds.
Such interactions, between people of different disciplines does not happen all that often, but it shows the fantastic creative potential when thinkers cross the line and take a look at what others are doing. We are incredibly lucky to live in one such period, when suddenly the walls between a number of different domains of knowledge are starting to collapse. Many age old philosophical questions are now being revisited as scientific problems. We are making remarkable progress in understanding mysterious phenomenon such as consciousness. We are connecting our sense of morality with the biology of evolution. This book does a remarkable job of connecting our sense of visual aesthetics with structures in our brain, the complex interactions between different parts of the brain, and our evolutionary history. It shows how successful artists “discover” these properties subconsciously, and learns how to exploit them to create the desired emotional effect on the audience. It also shows how the mind of the beholder, and not just the artist, that is at play here.
In the rest of the book he carefully pick up different aspects of visual aesthetics and connects them with what we know today about the brain and the mind. It is a fascinating journey, beautifully illustrated with various artistic examples. Many of these pieces were familiar to me, but the book provided an entirely new perspective of looking at them. That to me is the essence of a great book and a great idea -- it makes you look at familiar things in novel ways.
The author does not claim that we understand it all. These are just scientific possibilities at this point, were some ideas are more rigorously explored than others. But just as the brilliant neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran also points out in his book The Tell-Tale Brain – a Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, it opens the door that these speculative ideas can finally be explored experimentally. This is a huge step from purely conjectural thoughts where there is no way to check if the idea can actually stand on it legs.
It is just as important to realize that obtaining a deeper understanding of why a certain piece of art work emotionally does not steal away from the pure enjoyment. In fact I believe, from my own subjective experience, it could sharpens one’s ability to enjoy art, and thus make the pleasure even more pleasurable. It is no different than our understanding of why human society, as an evolutionary entity, needs the emotion of “love” to tie us together as social units, makes it any more difficult for us to fall in love. We humans have a natural tendency to romanticize certain things as magical, as if beyond understanding. However, we have seen again and again in history, things don’t have to be magical to be fascinating. There was a time, not too long ago, when sunrise and sunset were seen as magical. Today we know with all certainty how it works. But knowing all that, sitting on a sea shore, the sunset looks no less amazing or romantic. In fact, knowing that the sun is one of the billions of stars around us, and the fact that there are more starts in the known universe than there are all the grains of sand on earth, makes it even more amazing.