Interview with Eric Kandel: 'I See Psychoanalysis, Art and Biology Coming Together'

Eric Kandel is considered one of the world's most important neuroscientists. He recently published a book about the creative power of Vienna, the city of his birth. In an interview, he discusses the demonic side of man and the postcoital perspectives offered in Gustav Klimt's paintings.

SPIEGEL: In your book, "The Age of Insight," you say your heart beats in three-quarter time. Can you say what you mean by this?

Kandel: I really like the city of Vienna. I like its art, its music and its architecture. In short, I like the culture that Vienna represents. What really captures me is the period around 1900 -- the time of Freud, Schnitzler and Klimt. This is the period in which the modern view of mind that we now hold was born. It was like a second Renaissance in Western culture. Austria was simply wonderful in this period. It was perhaps its greatest hour.

SPIEGEL: But at the same time, your relationship to your city of origin is fractured.

Kandel: I have on the one hand a hatred and on the other a yearning for Vienna. I left when I was nine years old because I was Jewish. And even before 1938, the anti-Semitism in Austria was probably deeper than it was in Germany or in other European countries. Then Hitler came in and Austrians welcomed him with open arms. The marching in of the Germans was accompanied by an unprecedented outbreak of violence toward Jews. The Austrians accomplished in a few days what took the Germans six years to do. Austrians also participated disproportionately in the killings of the Holocaust. They loved to run concentration camps.

SPIEGEL: So it seems that you're now able to reconcile with the homeland that once expelled you.

Kandel: There is an Austrian strand that has continued to percolate in my thinking. Things have also gotten somewhat better. After the war, the Austrians just denied their role in it all. They didn't teach it in school. But since 1990 they have openly acknowledged their role in the Holocaust and I feel more comfortable in Austria now. I feel a sort of reconciliation. Perhaps I can make peace with all this.

SPIEGEL: Your love for Vienna seems to have played a big role in that reconciliation. What is it about the city that's so captivating?

Kandel: For me, it's Vienna at the fin de siècle. Then it was perhaps the most modern city in the world.

SPIEGEL: And as you write, the city gave birth to a new idea of what man was.

Kandel: Yes. Ever since the Enlightenment, people thought that we were living in a rational universe. They thought that God was a mathematician, and that the function of the scientist was to figure out the mathematical rules whereby the universe was created. The idea was that God created man different from other animals, because man was rational and animals had drives and instincts. That idea of a rational man that was specially created went out the window when Darwin showed that we evolved from animal ancestors, that we have instincts, much as do animals, and that our instincts are very important. It was a much more sophisticated, nuanced, and rich view of the human mind, and this view is largely a Viennese discovery.

SPIEGEL: You're referring here to the conception of the human mind by psychoanalysis and by Freud.

Kandel: Yes, but not only. Artists and writers were also interested in the unconscious. It was, by the way, medicine that made the first steps toward modernity. Parisian medicine was outstanding in the 1800s. But around 1840, 1850, it began to decline and Austria really began to move up. Carl von Rokitansky is one of the founders of scientific medicine and systematized it, looking at what the clinical symptoms mean. The medicine we practice today, which is infinitely more sophisticated, is Rokitansky's medicine.

SPIEGEL: Why did this process take place in Vienna rather than other cities?

Kandel: Vienna is relatively small. And it had wonderful salons, opportunities for people to get together. There was a lot of interaction between scientists and non-scientists, between Jews and non-Jews, between artists, writers and scientists, including medical scientists.

SPIEGEL: You yourself showed an interest in the irrational and demonic side of man that you encountered as a child in Vienna. In an effort to understand it, you began studying history.

Kandel: Yes. If you read any of my books, they tend to have a strong historical perspective.

SPIEGEL: So why did you give up this career path?

Kandel: It's very simple: I fell in love with a woman. She taught me another truth. She was a daughter of a very well-known psychoanalyst who introduced me to Vienna psychoanalysis.

SPIEGEL: Without this woman, do you think that you would have ended as a historian?

Kandel: Undoubtedly.

SPIEGEL: But you also turned your back on psychoanalysis and picked up neuroscience.

Kandel: Yes, and I'm also glad to have done so. But in hindsight, that was more of a coincidence. In my senior year I took an elective in neurobiology, and just loved it. When I graduated from medical school and did my internship, every physician in the United States was being drafted. There was a small fraction of people, about 1 percent, who were selected to go to the National Institute of Health. Instead of taking care of service people and their dependents, they can do science. My lab head asked me, "Would you like me to nominate you?" So I said, "Of course."

SPIEGEL: And it was in the lab where you began to question psychoanalysis?

Kandel: You could say that. I began to realize that biology is a better way of approaching the truth about the mind. In biology most people don't tackle problems at the level of complexity that psychoanalysis does. But psychoanalysis has a degree of uncertainty about it. A psychoanalyst may have some deep insights, but cannot, at the moment, run experiments to establish whether it's really the truth.

SPIEGEL: Do you not at times miss working with patients?

Kandel: I'll tell you a joke. A friend of mine, Douglas Bond, was the chairman of the psychiatry department at Case Western Reserve University, which is a very good department in the United States. After a while, he was made dean of the medical school. So people said, "Doug, I don't understand. You love patients. How can you give this up to become a dean?" He said, "I haven't given it up. It's just that now my patients have tenure." I think he's right.

SPIEGEL: In a way, you stayed loyal to psychoanalysis. When you began your work as a neuroscientist, you said it was your goal to find the Freudian id and super-ego in the brain ...

Kandel: ... which was rather naïve. My mentor said I was crazy.

SPIEGEL: But in your book you have an illustration that seems to have achieved your goal: The Freudian entities correspond to specific regions of the brain.

Kandel: Yes, but I don't think Freud would be satisfied. What I outline is a very primitive outline.

SPIEGEL: But you do think that we will find Freud in an anatomical sense?

Kandel: Yes. And Freud himself predicted this. Freud tried to develop a model of the mind in 1895, but it was premature.

SPIEGEL: In your book, you make a case for using neurobiology to help understand art and the creative process. That's quite ambitious.

Kandel: There's a Jewish phrase called chutzpah, which means a "bit of nerve" to try to do this. It is ambitious -- and even more so, since some critics have the idea that as soon as you try to explain art in biological terms you take away from the pleasure you get from just looking at it.

SPIEGEL: And how do you respond to that accusation?

Kandel: I don't think biology is replacing the feeling experienced through art. Biology is capable of giving additional insights. It's a parallel, not a substitutive process.

SPIEGEL: But where exactly do you find that extra insight? Maybe we could discuss this by looking at three pictures you write about in your book, by Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. Particularly impressive is Klimt's painting of Judith …

Kandel: … ok, let's talk about that. I use this painting to compare the insights that Klimt had as compared to Freud. Freud had very little insight into female sexuality while Klimt had remarkable ones. To begin with, he realized that women have the capacity for a rich and independent sexual life. In Judith, he shows that, in addition, women, like men, can fuse aggression with eroticism. Here she is post-coital, having cut off Holofernes' head. And she's still enjoying the pleasure of that.

SPIEGEL: But you don't need brain research to grasp all of that.

Kandel: Don't misunderstand me. My book is not only about biological insights into art but also about artistic insight into the mind. So I use paintings in this book to point out several different things. One is to develop intellectual history. And another is to show you how insight into biology helps you understand what's going on. Now I could describe for you, for example, that there are cells in the brain that respond to faces. This is one of the reasons that I deal with portraiture. We can learn a lot about our perception of facial expression from the behavior of these cells. But I do not use this portrait to make this point.

SPIEGEL: And these brain cells are activated by the ecstasy of the depicted woman?

Kandel: Yes, and they particularly respond to distortions in faces. Now here with her half-closed eyes and her dreamy view, she's recruiting these cells and they respond very powerfully.

SPIEGEL: And what would you say neurobiology teaches us about "The Bride of the Wind" by Kokoschka?

Kandel: That's also a very interesting image. With that, I'm showing how the artist independently showed an awakening of one aspect of the psychoanalytic tradition. Freud believed that the road to the mind of others begins with an examination of oneself. Self-portraits are a way of revealing something about oneself. Kokoschka did some wonderful self-portraits. And he tried to get below the skin to really understand what's going on inside, including inside himself. Here he's revealing how insecure he is without his lover, Alma Mahler. This gets particularly obvious if you look at the colors that bear no relationship to reality. He appears as a nervous wreck here. Meanwhile she's sleeping away, having a wonderful time.

SPIEGEL: Brain research helps here as well?

Kandel: Yes, Kokoschka realizes that color is a means to generate strong emotional reactions -- and these emotions bring in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

SPIEGEL: Let's finally take a look at a third picture, this one by Egon Schiele. What do think about "Death and the Maiden"?

Kandel: That's a powerful painting. Also a self-portrait. This is the last time Schiele is with his lover, Wally. This is a woman who really helped him a great deal in the early period when he was achieving his manhood. But he felt because she was not intellectual and upper class that she was a good mistress but not a good wife. So this is the last time they were together.

SPIEGEL: To ask the same question again: What does this have to do with the brain?

Kandel: When we're dealing with rejection and love, the dopamine system is extremely important. So you know that hormones in brains modulate our reaction to a scene like this.

SPIEGEL: These insights are highly interesting, but it somehow remains doubtful whether brain science really contributes to the understanding of these works of art.

Kandel: I'll grant you: It's just the beginning. There are many things you can point to in there that I will not be able to give any additional insight about. But I like being in the beginning of an area, opening it up, showing how it should be studied. I do think brain science can contribute but we have to use very different examples to make that point. We could look at the exaggeration of color and emotion in the facial expression in Kokoschka and Schiele to illustrate why we respond so powerfully to exaggeration and caricature.

SPIEGEL: Science and art are two ways to search for truth. But these two ways might be too different to be compatible.

Kandel: Truth has many dimensions, and the way you arrive at truth in complex situations is through many perspectives. I see psychoanalysis, art and biology ultimately coming together, just like cognitive psychology and neuroscience have merged recently. You have specifically selected examples, which I use not to illustrate how science can enhance insight into art. Rather I use them to show how artists had insights into the mind that Freud did not have and that enriched and corrected what Freud taught us. This is what concerns me in the first third of the book. It is in the second and third parts of the book that I outline a biological approach to how we respond to a work of art. We would need another interview to discuss examples from there.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Kandel, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Johann Grolle

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