A Summary of The Age of Insight
The central challenge of science in the twenty-first century is to understand the human mind in biological terms. The possibility of meeting that challenge opened up in the late twentieth century, when cognitive psychology, the science of mind, merged with neuroscience, the science of the brain. The result was a new biological science of mind that has allowed us to address a range of questions about ourselves: How do we perceive, learn, and remember? What is the nature of emotion, empathy, thought, and consciousness? What are the limits of free will?
This new biological science of mind is important not only because it provides a deeper understanding of what makes us who we are, but also because it makes possible a meaningful series of dialogues between brain science, the humanities and other areas of knowledge. Such dialogues could help us explore the mechanisms in the brain that make perception and creativity possible, whether in art, the sciences, the humanities, or everyday life. In a larger sense, this dialogue could help make science part of our common cultural experience.
I take up this central scientific challenge in The Age of Insight by focusing on how the new science of mind has begun to engage with art. In my life as a scientist, I have often benefitted from taking a reductionist approach. I try to explore a large problem that interests me – in my case this is the problem of memory storage – by initially focusing on its simplest example, and trying to explore it deeply. I will also do so in this book. I limit my discussion to one particular art form—portraiture—in one particular cultural period—modernism in Vienna, 1900. I do this not only to focus the discussion on a central set of issues but also because both this art form and this period are characterized by a series of pioneering attempts to link art and science.
I trace this dialogue between art and science from its origin in Vienna 1900 through three historically consecutive phases.
The first phase began with the independent discovery in Vienna 1900 to 1920 of different aspects of unconscious mental processes by two physicians – Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler – and three modernist artists – Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele – all of whom, I will argue, were influenced by a common source: Carl von Rokitansky, the founder of the Second Vienna School of Medicine. Influenced first by Rokitansky and then by Freud, the three Viennese Modernist painters sought to depict the unconscious, instinctual strivings of the individuals in their paintings and drawings. Yet each artist developed a distinctive way of using facial expressions and hand and body gestures to communicate his own distinctive insights into the human mind and human sexuality. In doing so, each artist made independent conceptual contributions to our understanding of the unconscious, while also making technical contributions to modern art.
The second phase began in Vienna 1900, when Alois Riegl one of the founders at the Vienna School of Art History, advanced the Modernist agenda of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. He emphasized that the function of the modern artist was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths. Riegl pointed out that for Art History to grow intellectually it needed to incorporate scientific thinking, especially psychology. In that context he defined the task for Art History to try to understand the Beholder’s Share: The Viewer’s response to Art. This challenge was taken up in Vienna 1930 by Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, two of Riegl’s disciples, who developed a cognitive psychology of art focused on the Beholder’s Share and the creativity of the beholder. (Here we can discuss Messerschmitt.)
The third phase, which began two decades ago, saw this cognitive psychology interact with biology to lay the foundation for our understanding of the brain processes that contribute to ours – the beholder’s – perceptual, emotional, and empathic response to art. The first steps in initiating this phase of the dialogue were taken in the 1950s by Stephen Kuffler, originally of the Vienna School of Medicine, and they continue to this day.
Today, the new science of mind has matured to the point where it can join and invigorate a new dialogue between art and science, again focused on the beholder. To relate present-day brain science to the Modernist painting of Vienna 1900, I outline, in simple terms, our current understanding of the cognitive, psychological and neurobiological basis of perception, memory, emotion, empathy, and creativity. I then examine how cognitive psychology and brain biology have joined together to explore how the viewer perceives and responds to art.