Neuroaesthetics: Nobel Laureate Explores How Art Affects the Brain

By Johann Grolle

Neuropsychiatrist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel's recent book on the brain, art and the creative process is a fascinating look into the brand new area of research called "neuroaesthetics." Just as fascinating is his perspective on turn-of-the-century Vienna, the city of his birth, which later expelled him for being Jewish.

Editor's note: SPIEGEL ONLINE has also published an interview with Eric Kandel about his new book, which can be read here.

When Auguste Rodin visited Vienna in June 1902, art critic Berta Zuckerkandl invited him to spend an afternoon in her famous salon. As the hostess later recalled, the great French sculptor and Austrian artist Gustav Klimt had seated themselves beside two remarkably beautiful young women -- Rodin gazing enchantingly at them. Rodin leaned over and said to Klimt: "I have never before experienced such an atmosphere -- your tragic and magnificent Beethoven fresco, your unforgettable temple-like exhibition; and now this garden, these women, this music ... and round it all this gay, child-like happiness ... What is the reason for it all?"

Klimt slowly nodded and responded with a single word: "Austria!"

This is the opening scene in New York neuroscientist Eric Kandel's exploration of his native Vienna, a tome entitled "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present," published this spring in English and this month in German. It's a 656-page excursion that takes the reader all the way to the depths of the soul, the cavernous chasms of sex and the secrets of beauty. Here, in Vienna, the former capital of the Habsburg Empire, the author traces a major revolution in Western thinking.

The salons of fin-de-siècle Vienna served as a meeting place for poets, painters, philosophers, architects and researchers who were creating nothing less than a radical new perception of who we are. They abandoned the ideal of the Enlightenment and revealed, below the surface of presumably rationally-acting Homo sapiens, that human beings are driven by instincts and urges.

Sigmund Freud became the quintessential figure of this movement. But others also delved into the realm of the unconscious: Freud apparently saw Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler as an intimidating "double." In a remarkable letter written on the eve of Schnitzler's 60th birthday, the great psychoanalyst wrote to him: "I believe that fundamentally you are an explorer of the depths."

Exile During Holocaust

But Kandel is primarily fascinated by the Viennese painters' incipient interest in sexual drives and repressed desires. In his drawings, Gustav Klimt embarked on a daringly overt exploration of female lust. Oskar Kokoschka saw his portraits as "soul paintings," in which he sought to divulge the layers of an individual's inner life, which remain invisible to the naked eye. And Egon Schiele revealed himself in his self-portraits as plagued by extreme anxiety.

Kandel portrays Vienna as a hotbed of artistic creativity, a hub of intellectual activity and a cradle of modern scientific ideas -- and thus sketches a remarkably positive image of this city with which he has had a lifelong love-hate relationship.

Indeed, buried deep in his own soul is the memory of that autumn in 1938, when his parents gave him a shiny blue battery-driven toy car for his birthday. He still sees himself -- how he was so absorbed in steering it throughout the apartment. In his next memory, he is startled by a loud banging on the door. Even today, Kandel says the sound still echoes in his ears.

The Kandels were Jews, and they had to leave their apartment. It was "Kristallnacht," the so-called "Night of Broken Glass" pogrom of Nov. 9, 1938, in which Nazis launched coordinated attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses in Germany and Austria. How could the 9-year-old Eric comprehend this? When the family returned to their ravaged apartment several days later, the blue car was gone.

His entire fascination with the dark side of the soul, his interest in psychoanalysis, memory and neuroscience, says Kandel, dates back to the last year that he spent in Vienna before he emigrated to the United States. He is also left with his bitter recollections of this city, where he first encountered the evil and brutality in mankind.

It is only now, at the age of 82, that Kandel is making peace with his native city. He says that writing this book was deeply therapeutic for him on a personal level. It helped him come to terms with the trauma of being driven from his home.

Brave New World of Neuroaesthetics

And yet "The Age of Insight" is so much more: In addition to making amends with his homeland, Kandel uses this as an opportunity to launch a bold project. His late work can be read as a manifesto for a new branch of science: neuroaesthetics. Kandel says that it's time to use the tools of his field -- neuroscience -- to unravel the mystery of human creativity, the enigmatic impact of art and the dark depths of the unconscious mind. His goal is to draw a connection between our emotional reaction to a Klimt or Schiele portrait and the electrical flickers of individual neurons.

We still have only a vague idea of what the budding field of neuroaesthetics can explain here. Kandel readily admits that what he sketches in his book is "merely a beginning." But he says that he loves to stand at the beginning and take the first step in a field of knowledge and explore what might be worth pursuing.

And who would be more eminently qualified to tackle such an ambitious project than Kandel himself? He has already founded an entire field of research and explored higher mental functions down to the molecular level. He uncovered the mystery of memory by proving that recollections are burned into the contact points of the nerve cells, the synapses.

Kandel's attempt to grasp the secret of the phenomenon of learning and remembering led to a career that exemplifies the scientific process of discovery: Step by step, the researcher proceeded from dealing with his own memory to deciphering memory storage in neurons.

When he attended university, he initially selected the obvious way of coming to terms with the historical experiences of his childhood. He studied history and focused on Kurt Schuschnigg, the chancellor who led Austria's Austro-fascist regime before the Nazis marched into the country.

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