Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures

Art and science have a long interconnected history, and I am fascinated by what we can experience when they intersect, especially now that we are learning so much about neuroscience.

Eric Kandel

Eric Kandel. Columbia University photo

Eric Kandel —a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist and neuroscientist—explores the parallels between techniques artists and scientists use to distill truth, in his new book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. He first wrote about the interplay between science and art in his magnificent survey of The Age of Insight and his quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present.

This time Kandel brilliantly examines the role of abstract art as a means of bridging the divide between science and the arts. Kandel say this bridge helps him understand human mind in all its complexities and creativity:

Studying the biology of a viewer’s response to a work of art can yield humanistic insights not only into the biological makeup of the beholder’s mind, but also into the cultural and psychological implications of works of art. Moreover, artists, like scientists, often experiment with different approaches toward achieving their goal. In this way, I argue that visual artists often employ methodologies that are strikingly similar to those used by scientists.

Kandel focuses on abstract art because it is highly suitable for scientific exploration. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Kandel explained the connection between abstract art and neuroscience:

This is reductionism—to take a complex problem and select a central, but limited, component that you can study in depth. Rothko—only color. And yet the power it conveys is fantastic. Jackson Pollock got rid of all form.

[In neuroscience] you have to look at how behavior is changed by environmental experience…I began to realize we’ve got to find a very simple learning situation…I looked around for an animal that had the kind of [simple] nervous system I would like. Aplysia [has] the largest nerve cells in the animal kingdom. I think there’s a formal logic that they share, not necessarily the methodology or the substance, but to take a complex idea and look at a simplified version of it to see what truth you can distill.

Reading Kandel’s book brought back memories of my years at art school in California when the New York School and abstract expressionism were all the rage. What a thrill to see a Rothko on the front cover, browse through much loved reproductions of seminal works of abstract art, and dive in to his treatise on reductionism and abstraction.

Kandel has an abiding love for art and it shines through in his writing. He goes into great depth describing various artists and their works to give you an understanding of what abstract art is all about. His insights will help you decode and appreciate the abstract as a way to distill the essence or truth about a subject.

In abstract painting, elements are included not as visual reproductions of objects, but as references or clues to how we conceptualize objects. In describing the world they see, abstract artists not only dismantle many of the building blocks of bottom-up visual processing by eliminating perspective and holistic depiction, they also nullify some of the premises on which bottom-up processing is based. We scan an abstract painting for links between line segments, for recognizable contours and objects, but in the most fragmented works, such as those by Mark Rothko, Dan Flavin, and James Turrell, our efforts are thwarted.

Thus the reason abstract art poses such an enormous challenge to the beholder is that it teaches us to look at art—and, in a sense, at the world—in a new way. Abstract art dares our visual system to interpret an image that is fundamentally different from the kind of images our brain has evolved to reconstruct.

In other words abstract art asks the viewer to be creative.

Examining modern art through the new biological science of mind provides a deeper understanding of what makes us who we are. One of Kandel’s descriptions of the brain solved a mystery I have wondered about for years. This is totally unrelated to the book, but how could Ishtar be the goddess of both love and war? The answer as I perceive it, resides in the mix of mating neurons and fighting neurons within the hypothalamus, and how they get activated. (Described on page 97 in the hardcover edition) This evokes another question: Was Ishtar a Babylonian symbol of the hypothalamus?

Reductionism in Art and Brain Science is a beautifully written book, richly illustrated with diagrams of the brain, and full colour images of modern art masterpieces. It is certain to inspire the two solitudes of sciences and the humanities to engage in meaningful dialogues. For those of you who say you dislike abstract art, I invite you to read this book, and take a second look.

Available on Amazon

Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures
by Eric R. Kandel
Columbia University Press, 2016


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