The Chronicle Review

Eric Kandel's Visions

Photo illustration by Miller Mobley for The Chronicle Review

Kandel and Gustave Klimt's "The Kiss" (1907-08)
March 11, 2012

In 590 BC, to protect her besieged city of Bethulia, the alluring Jewish widow Judith drank with and seduced the attacking Assyrian general Holofernes. When he fell into a drunken, sated heap, she decapitated him with his own sword and displayed his head as trophy, rallying her fellow citizens to rout the Babylonians.

So the Bible tells us, and so the Viennese Expressionist Gustav Klimt depicted in a famous 1901 painting, "Judith," that reflects, in tune with the psychological and artistic sensibility of his era, the braided ecstasy and aggression of women's sexuality. Klimt depicts her "as a symbol of the devastating power of the female erotic urge." Judith, "barely clothed and fresh from the seduction and slaying of Holofernes, glows in her voluptuousness. Her hair is a dark sky between the golden branches of Assyrian trees, fertility symbols that represent her eroticism. This young, ecstatic, extravagantly made-up woman confronts the viewer through half-closed eyes in what appears to be a reverie of orgasmic rapture," writes Eric Kandel in his new book, The Age of Insight.

Wait a minute. Writes who? Eric Kandel, the Nobel-winning neuroscientist who's spent most of his career fixated on the generously sized neurons of sea snails? What's he doing lecturing us on art history?

We see part of the general's severed head, Kandel goes on, and "the theme of decapitation is carried further by Judith's gold choker: Rendered in the same gilded style as the background, it formally severs Judith's own head from her body." That Judith is dressed like the sort of elegant, often Jewish Viennoise whose portraits Klimt painted and with whom he was rumored to have affairs, that she particularly resembles his famed subject and mysterious intimate, Adele Bloch-Bauer, only heightens the work's mysterious, carnal charge.

Hmm. Is Kandel, the 82-year-old Columbia University professor, indulging a little dilettantish fancy after his 50-plus years of intense lab research and theoretical thunderclaps? Or perhaps, after all that strain, he's just going a little bonkers?

Kandel goes on to speculate, in a bravura paragraph a few hundred pages later, on the exact neurochemical cognitive circuitry of the painting's viewer:

"At a base level, the aesthetics of the image's luminous gold surface, the soft rendering of the body, and the overall harmonious combination of colors could activate the pleasure circuits, triggering the release of dopamine. If Judith's smooth skin and exposed breast trigger the release of endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin, one might feel sexual excitement. The latent violence of Holofernes's decapitated head, as well as Judith's own sadistic gaze and upturned lip, could cause the release of norepinephrine, resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure and triggering the fight-or-flight response. In contrast, the soft brushwork and repetitive, almost meditative, patterning may stimulate the release of serotonin. As the beholder takes in the image and its multifaceted emotional content, the release of acetylcholine to the hippocampus contributes to the storing of the image in the viewer's memory. What ultimately makes an image like Klimt's 'Judith' so irresistible and dynamic is its complexity, the way it activates a number of distinct and often conflicting emotional signals in the brain and combines them to produce a staggeringly complex and fascinating swirl of emotions."

This is surely not Art Appreciation 101. But it turns out that Kandel is neither trifling nor touched. He is instead poised, as he long has been, on the cusp of a fledgling scientific discipline with deep implications for the humanities.

Jack Barchas, for one, expects no less. Head of the psychiatry department at Weill Cornell Medical College, he calls Kandel "one of the truly great intellects, ... one of the greatest scientists and greatest neuroscientists of the last 100 years." Kandel has "this wonderful far-reaching mind that is not afraid ... to ask questions, to be integrative, to take a bold leap of imagination." And some bold career leaps as well.

In the 1960s, Kandel found clinical psychiatry, his initial calling, to be insufficiently empirical and turned his back on it. In what he later called "the most difficult career decision of my life," he turned down the chairmanship of the Harvard Medical School psychiatry department for the pleasures of working with the sea snail Aplysia, a move that even some of his fellow neuroscientists found alarming, given their focus on the vertebrate brain. His key findings on the snail, for which he shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, showed that learning and memory change not the neuron's basic structure but rather the nature, strength, and number of its synaptic connections. Further, through focus on the molecular biology involved in a learned reflex like Aplysia's gill retraction, Kandel demonstrated that experience alters nerve cells' synapses by changing their pattern of gene expression. In other words, learning doesn't change what neurons are, but rather what they do.

The study of memory and its relationship to traumatic and pleasurable experiences has been part and parcel of Kandel's work, first in Aplysia and later in mice. It has spurred research, in his biotech ventures, on drug treatments for age-related memory loss. And Kandel is collaborating with his wife, the Columbia epidemiologist Denise Kandel, in relation to her "gateway drug" sequence theory, on a study of the biochemistry of drug experiences in mice depending on whether they are exposed to nicotine before cocaine or after. (Results show, he says, that there is a unidirectional biological sequence: Exposure to nicotine enhances the cocaine experience.)

OK, but what does all that have to do with art?

In his acclaimed personal and scientific 2006 memoir, In Search of Memory (Norton), Kandel offered what sounded at the time like a vague research agenda for future generations in the budding field of neuroaesthetics, saying that the science of memory storage lay "at the foothills of a great mountain range." Experts grasp the "cellular and molecular mechanisms," he wrote, but need to move to the level of neural circuits to answer the question, "How are internal representations of a face, a scene, a melody, or an experience encoded in the brain?" Since giving a talk on the matter in 2001, he has been piecing together his own thoughts in relation to his favorite European artists. And the result is The Age of Insight, with its hefty subtitle: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present (Random House).

The field of neuroaesthetics, says one of its founders, Semir Zeki, of University College London, is just 10 to 15 years old. Through brain imaging and other studies, scholars like Zeki have explored the cognitive responses to, say, color contrasts or ambiguities of line or perspective in works by Titian, Michelangelo, Cubists, and Abstract Expressionists. Researchers have also examined the brain's pleasure centers in response to appealing landscapes.

Neuroaesthetics isn't, its pioneers say, just an elaborate parlor trick: Hey, look at this nude, or this Henry Moore sculpture, and this circuit over here lights up. Rather, it is fundamental to an understanding of human cognition and motivation. Art isn't, as Kandel paraphrases a concept from the late philosopher of art Denis Dutton, "a byproduct of evolution, but rather an evolutionary adaptation—an instinctual trait—that helps us survive because it is crucial to our well-being." The arts encode information, stories, and perspectives that allow us to appraise courses of action and the feelings and motives of others in a palatable, low-risk way. Sometimes instinctively, sometimes more consciously, artists play with perception's variables in keen acknowledgment of the viewer's active role, which the art historian Ernst Gombrich poetically called the "beholder's share."

Kandel's key contribution to neuroaesthetics in The Age of Insight, Zeki says, is to focus on the work and milieu of three Austrian Expressionist artists: Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, all of whom Kandel has studied extensively and whose work he and his wife have collected since the 1960s.

Kandel views the Expressionists' art through the powerful multiple lenses of turn-of-the-century Vienna's cultural mores and psychological insights. But then he refracts them further, through later discoveries in cognitive science. He seeks to reassure those who fear that the empirical and chemical will diminish the paintings' poetic power. "In art, as in science," he writes, "reductionism does not trivialize our perception—of color, light, and perspective—but allows us to see each of these components in a new way. Indeed, artists, particularly modern artists, have intentionally limited the scope and vocabulary of their expression to convey, as Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt do, the most essential, even spiritual ideas of their art."

Akin to the manner in which his reductionist approach aided his work on neurons, Kandel's narrowed focus in The Age of Insight allows him to explain how those three artists were influenced in Vienna's close-knit intellectual circles by anatomists like Emil Zuckerkandl, who emphasized the importance of looking beneath the surface of things. It also enables Kandel—building on the work of Gombrich and the psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris, among others—to compare the painters' rendering of emotion, the unconscious, and the libido with contemporaneous psychological insights from Freud about latent aggression, pleasure and death instincts, and other primal drives.

Kandel concentrates his attention further by focusing on the three artists' portraits, especially half- to three-quarter-length ones, analyzing particularly their emphasis on facial distortions. That's why, although Kandel considers The Age of Insight to be more a work of intellectual history than of science, the book summarizes centuries of research on perception. And so you'll find, in those hundreds of pages between Kandel's introduction to Klimt's "Judith" and the neurochemical cadenza about the viewer's response to it, dossiers on vision as information processing; the brain's three-dimensional-space mapping and its interpretations of two-dimensional renderings; face recognition; the mirror neurons that enable us to empathize and physically reflect the affect and intentions we see in others; and many related topics. Kandel elsewhere describes the scientific evidence that creativity is nurtured by spells of relaxation, which foster a connection between conscious and unconscious cognition.

All that is to say that while Kandel's treatise is focused, it is also thorough. The author of a classic textbook on neuroscience, he seems here to have written a layman's cognition textbook wrapped within a work of art history.

Did he ever have doubts about taking on such a project?

"I'm a Viennese Jew," says Kandel with a wry chuckle. "Of course I have doubts." But "one's career goes through stages—and I don't just mean senility-related aging." Having given up most of his administrative functions and delegated much of his lab activity, he says, "I reached the point where I no longer run anything, practically." And so he had time to delve into a project that not only satisfied his scientific curiosity but also was therapeutic on a more personal level.

Kandel fled Nazified Austria in 1939, when he was 9, for a stable but hardscrabble upbringing in Brooklyn. Referring to the anti-Semitism and refugee experiences of his boyhood, about which he wrote in detail in his 2006 book, Kandel says: "I have, I would guess, not in a symptomatic way but on some level, a post-traumatic-stress disorder. And the way I come to grips with it is by mastering it in true scholarship. Why do I collect Viennese art? Why do I like this stuff? ... There are complex feelings I'm trying to work through in kind of an intellectual way."

And now that he's slayed his intellectual Holofernes? Having found the project "very therapeutic," Kandel says, "I can't say I'm in psychologically better shape. ... It's a little like psychotherapy—you don't wake up one day thinking, 'Wow, I'm cured.'"

Freud is credited with pioneering psychological art analysis in an essay, "Leonardo da Vinci, a Memory of His Childhood," ascribing to Leonardo, from his paintings and Codex entries, a latent homosexuality. The consensus view is that Freud was on to something in general approach, even if he botched that particular job partly because he worked from a mistranslation of one kind of bird, a kite, into another, a vulture. (Don't ask.) Having begun his career studying the neurons of the lamprey and crayfish, Freud later hoped, as evidenced in an unfinished 1895 essay, "The Project for a Scientific Psychology," "to give psychology, the science of mind, a firm grounding in biology," Kandel writes. But in trying to do so, Freud and William James, who wrote the two-volume The Principles of Psychology with an emphasis on intention and emotion, "were undertaking a challenge that was almost a century ahead of its time."

They didn't have the benefit, for instance, of Stephen Kuffler's research on the excitatory center and inhibitory surround of the ganglion cells in the retina. That revealed, Kandel explains, "that the visual system responds only to those parts of an image where the intensity of light changes," and that, further, "the appearance of an object depends principally on the contrast between that object and its background, not on the intensity of the light source." Or of Aina Puce, Gregory McCarthy, and Nancy Kanwisher's discoveries about a region in the inferior temporal lobe that specializes in face recognition. Or of knowledge of the amygdala's capacity to translate a visual stimulus, like a threatening-looking beast, into an emotional reaction.

Such findings are key to an enlightened analysis of our responses to art, Kandel argues, because "our initial response to the most salient features of the paintings of the Austrian Modernists, like our response to a dangerous animal, is automatic. ... The answer to James's question of how an object simply perceived turns into an object emotionally felt, then, is that the portraits are never objects simply perceived. They are more like the dangerous animal at a distance—both perceived and felt."

Several years ago, Kandel, harking back to early-career concerns, made the rounds advocating brain imaging as a way to empirically monitor psychotherapy, particularly in short-term cognitive treatments of, say, obsessive-compulsive behaviors. "I have no difficulty with Freud," he says. The 1895 paper "was a disaster," but Freud quickly "realized that he could not do a biology of mind. ... I think the issue with psychoanalysis wasn't that the initial ideas weren't extremely interesting but that the generations after that lived on that windfall."

If imaging is key to gauging therapeutic practices, it will be key to neuroaesthetics as well, Kandel predicts—a broad, intense array of "imaging experiments to see what happens with exaggeration, distorted faces, in the human brain and the monkey brain," viewers' responses to "mixed eroticism and aggression," and the like.

Kandel's an opera lover but says he has no formal training in music. He focused on Expressionist art because it's an area of expertise and comfort. Even at that, the scrupulous investigator was guided by the art historians Emily Braun, Jane Kallir, Claude Cernuschi, Alessandra Comini, and Ann Temkin.

Still, Kandel says, while the visual-perception literature might be richer at the moment, there's no reason that neuroaesthetics should restrict its emphasis to the purely visual arts at the expense of music, dance, film, and theater.

Zeki agrees, saying that visual art is easier to study because "a lot more of our brain is devoted to vision." But he recently co-wrote a paper tracing subjects' responses to art and music and concluding that "as far as activity in the brain is concerned, there is a faculty of beauty that is not dependent on the modality through which it is conveyed but which can be activated by at least two sources—musical and visual—and probably by other sources as well." Specifically, in this "brain-based theory of beauty," the paper says, that faculty is associated with activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex.

Of neuroaesthetics, Zeki says, "I'll be amazed if it doesn't explode in the next 10 to 15 years." He expects The Age of Insight to be embraced by neurobiologists and the general public, but says it will be a further "irritation to people hostile to the idea" that cognition can be traced to specific neural correlates.

Zeki's message to art historians, aesthetic philosophers, and others who chafe at that idea is twofold. The more diplomatic pitch is that neuroaesthetics is different, complementary, and not oppositional to other forms of arts scholarship. But "the stick," as he puts it, is that if arts scholars "want to be taken seriously" by neurobiologists, they need to take advantage of the discoveries of the past half-century. If they don't, he says, "it's a bit like the guys who said to Galileo that we'd rather not look through your telescope."

Arts scholars "have been way behind," Zeki says. Their work "could have been written by John Locke or David Hume. ... They should not be worried about our trespassing" on their discipline, but they should worry about their reception by a "public at large that is getting more and more savvy about the brain."

But not all the skeptics of neuroaesthetics reside in the humanities. Take Paul Matthews, vice president for imaging, genetics, and neurology in clinical pharmacology and discovery medicine at GlaxoSmithKline, head of the GSK Clinical Imaging Centre at Hammersmith Hospital, in London, and a professor of clinical neurosciences at Imperial College London. Matthews, a co-author of The Bard on the Brain: Understanding the Mind Through the Art of Shakespeare and the Science of Brain Imaging (Dana Press, 2003), seems open to the elucidations that science and the humanities can cast on each other. The neural pathways of our aesthetic responses are "good explanations," he says. But "does one [type of] explanation supersede all the others? I would argue that they don't, because there's a fundamental disconnection still between ... explanations of neural correlates of conscious experience and conscious experience" itself.

There are, Matthews says, "certain kinds of problems that are fundamentally interesting to us as a species: What is love? What motivates us to anger?" Writers put their observations on such matters into idiosyncratic stories, psychologists conceive their observations in a more formalized framework, and neuroscientists like Zeki monitor them at the level of functional changes in the brain. All of those approaches to human experience "intersect," Matthews says, "but no one of them is the explanation."

"Most philosophers of mind," he goes on, "are not very interested in neuroscience, in my experience. ... They view the question of the neuro-correlates of consciousness to be a rather trivial one."

"Conscious experience," he says, "is something we cannot even interrogate in ourselves adequately. What we're always trying to do in effect is capture the conscious experience of the last moment. ... As we think about it, we have no way of capturing more than one part of it."

Addressing such tensions, Kandel sees art and art history as "parent disciplines" and psychology and brain science as "antidisciplines," to be drawn together in an E.O. Wilson-like synthesis toward "consilience as an attempt to open a discussion between restricted areas of knowledge." Kandel approvingly cites Stephen Jay Gould's wish for "the sciences and humanities to become the greatest of pals ... but to keep their ineluctably different aims and logics separate as they ply their joint projects and learn from each other."

From parallel scientific and artistic explorations, "the gain for neural science is clear," Kandel writes. "One of the ultimate challenges for biology is to understand the brain's processing of unconscious and conscious perception, emotion, and empathy." And just as an understanding of anatomy served Leonardo, discoveries about the workings of perception and emotional response "are likely to influence artists and give rise to new forms of representation," beyond the introspective leaps that Surrealists like René Magritte took in trying to grapple with irrationality.

Might Kandel have in mind his own steps in such a synthesis?

"I'm not sure I'm in a position to have many more steps," he says. Still, as he was discussing at dinner recently with the architect Renzo Piano, creative leaps occur at the most unexpected times: "the shower, vacation, ... listening to opera." One never knows when, beyond conscious thought, the mind will shift from rigid concentration on a problem to a fresh angle, letting primary- and secondary-process thinking combine their considerable powers.

"I always carry little blue cards with me," Kandel says. "And extra pens."

Alexander C. Kafka is deputy managing editor of The Chronicle Review.