The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present
by Eric R. Kandel. Random House, 2012
What happens when an obscure interest in early 20th-century Austrian art meets up with an encyclopedic knowledge of brain science? In three words, action potentials fly. Enough neurons were firing to ignite most people’s heads when Kandel wrote this ambitious 672-page book about possible ways in which art and modern brain science can enrich and inform each other.
In The Age of Insight, Kandel, a neuroscientist and Nobel laureate in medicine, gives us two extraordinary books in one. The first is about five influential geniuses who overlapped to some extent in the early 1900s in Vienna, Austria: visual artists Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Gustav Klimt; writer Arthur Schnitzler; and the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Kandel’s fascination with this space and time is more than professional; he was born in Vienna in 1929 and forced at age nine to depart from his country with his family because of increasing violence against Jews.
Schiele, Kokoschka and Klimt—together the Austrian expressionists—abandoned realism in art in favor of abstract and often sensual ways of using a canvas to reveal the inner mind of a portrait subject. Schnitzler experimented with stream-of-consciousness writing for the same end, and Freud virtually defined the modern concept of the unconscious and developed techniques for probing it for therapeutic purposes.
What is in effect a separate book—the second half—reviews the recent explosion of research in brain science, bringing us up-to-date on what is currently understood about the neural correlates of vision, memory and creativity and arguing convincingly that a great deal of important brain activity is in fact beyond conscious awareness.
Though astonishing in both depth and breadth, The Age of Insight is lacking in one respect: Kandel’s unwillingness to criticize the ideas he is presenting or at least to wonder about their validity. He asserts, for example, that artists “intuit” properties of the brain when they use lines or colors in certain ways to evoke particular reactions from viewers, but that contention goes well beyond the facts. It is far more likely that artists simply experiment with the medium, adopting the techniques that produce desired effects and discarding the rest.
Kandel’s reluctance to self-criticize is especially unsatisfying when he asks “what and where” consciousness is. He declares that the experience of consciousness is correlated with neural activity in “a vast number of regions distributed throughout the brain.” Such activity, he says, “ignites consciousness”—which is what, exactly, and where? Kandel never says.
The Age of Insight does not unravel all the mysteries of art or solve all the problems of neuroscience, but it is an amazing ride, at the very least showing you the workings of one of the world’s most extraordinary intellects in a frenzy of creative motion.