The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present

If you are fascinated by the intersection of art, science and the brain, you will love this multifaceted gem of a book by Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel 
Available on Amazon

The Age of Insight takes us to 1900s Vienna, the cultural capital of Europe at the time, where artists, writers and scientists met in glittering salons, freely exchanging ideas that led to revolutionary breakthroughs in psychology, brain science, literature, and art.

This period was characterized by “the attempt to make a sharp break with the past and to explore new forms of expression in art, architecture, psychology, literature, and music. It spawned an ongoing pursuit to link these disciplines.”

Kandel opens with a tantalizing preface, vividly describing a conversation between French sculptor Auguste Renoir, and Gustav Klimpt, Austria’s most accomplished artist, at a salon hosted by a leading art critic in Vienna.  This magical scene hooked me to keep reading.

Kandel examines  how the Vienna School of Medicine came to the realization that, “Truth lies hidden beneath the surface.” This insight had a profound impact on the work of Freud, who trained at the school. It also influenced  the novelist Arthur Schnitzler and on a trio of artists—Gustav Klimpt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele —who emphasized the importance of unconscious feelings, memories and motives in everyday life.

The realization that our mental functioning is largely irrational was arrived at by Friedrich Nietzsche and Darwin around the same time.

Freud, who was much influenced by both Darwin and Nietzsche… was its most profound and articulate exponent. Schnitzler, Klimpt, Kokoschka, and Schiele also discovered and explored new aspects of our unconscious mental life. They understood women better than Freud… and they saw more clearly than Freud the importance of an infant’s bonding to its mother. They even realized the significance of the aggressive instinct earlier than Freud did..

Klimpt became fascinated with the structure of the cell. “Thus, the small iconographic images on Adelle’s dress (see the book cover above)  are not simply decorative… they are symbols of male and female cells: rectangular sperm and ovoid eggs. …designed to match the sitter’s seductive face and her full-blown reproductive capacities.”

The Vienna School of Art History, influenced by the School of Medicine and Freud, began to develop a science-based psychology of art that was initially focused on the beholder. What does the viewer bring to a work of art? How does the beholder respond to it? How can art and science be brought together? The function of Modernism as an art movement was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths.

Kandel argues that science and art share the same fundamental questions, but go about answering them in different ways.

While brain science is concerned with the mental life that arises from the activity of the brain, including how perception and memory work, and what defines consciousness, art offers insight into emotional and feeling aspects of the mind.

He says, “A brain scan may reveal the neural signs of depression, but a Beethoven symphony reveals what that depression feels like. Both perspectives are necessary if we are to fully grasp the nature of mind, yet they are rarely brought together.”

Science seeks to understand complex processes by reducing them to their essential actions and studying the interplay of those actions — and this reductionist approach extends to art as well. Indeed, my focus on one school of art, consisting of only three major representatives, is an example of this. Some people are concerned that a reductionist analysis will diminish our fascination with art, that it will trivialize art and deprive it of its special force, thereby reducing the beholder’s share to an ordinary brain function. I argue to the contrary, that by encouraging a dialogue between science and art and by encouraging a focus on one mental process at a time, reductionism can expand our vision and give us new insights into the nature and creation of art. These new insights will enable us to perceive unexpected aspects of art that derive from the relationship between biological and psychological phenomena.

Kandel notes that Viennese life at the turn of the century provided opportunities in salons and coffeehouses for scientists, writers, and artists to come together in an atmosphere that was at once inspiring, optimistic, and politically engaged.  “…science was no longer the narrow and restrictive province of scientists but had become an integral part of Viennese culture. …a paradigm for how an open dialogue can be achieved.”

This is timely, given that some governments muzzle its scientists. It is important for the dialogue  between art, science and society to continue, because we need the cross-pollination of ideas to generate new insights towards resolving the challenges we face in business and society.

The Age of Insight is beautifully written and illustrated (some of the art is not safe for work). It is a pleasure to read and will illuminate new insights about the mind, emotion, creative processes, and the unconscious.

 Buy The Age of Insight on Amazon

I gave this book to my father, a Freudian psychoanalyst, and he liked it so much he wrote a review for the Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis 


What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art, by Eric Kandel  in the New York Times

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

The Real Neuroscience of Creativity

Neuroscience takes us inside the learning brain

Profound Moments in Science Often Lie in the Arts

Xerox PARC: Collaboration at the Intersection of Art and Science