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 and science, you will love this multifaceted gem of a book by Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel. The Age of Insight (available on Amazon) takes us to 1900s Vienna, the cultural capital of Europe at the time when artists, writers and scientists met in glittering salons, freely exchanging ideas.

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:

When Auguste Rodin visited Vienna in June 1902, Berta Zuckerkandl invited the great French sculptor, together with Gustav Klimt, Austria’s most accomplished painter, for a Jause, a typical Viennese afternoon of coffee and cakes. Berta, herself a leading art critic and the guiding intelligence of one of Vienna’s most distinguished salons, recalled this memorable afternoon in her autobiography:

Klimt and Rodin had seated themselves beside two remarkably beautiful young women—Rodin gazing enchantedly at them.… Alfred Grünfeld [the former court pianist to Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany, now living in Vienna] sat down at the piano in the big drawing room, whose double doors were opened wide. Klimt went up to him and asked: “Please play us some Schubert.” And Grünfeld, his cigar in his mouth, played dreamy tunes that floated and hung in the air with the smoke of his cigar. Rodin leaned over to Klimt and said: “I have never before experienced such an atmosphere—your tragic and magnificent Beethoven fresco; your unforgettable, temple-like exhibition; and now this garden, these women, this music … and round it all this gay, childlike happiness.… What is the reason for it all?” And Klimt slowly nodded his beautiful head and answered only one word: “Austria.”

This romanticized story encapsulates Kandel’s fascination with the intellectual history of Vienna at the turn of the last century. The exchanges that took place at salons and cafés were characterized by the desire to break with the past and to explore new forms of expression in art, architecture, psychology, literature, and music, thus creating  a period of revolutionary breakthroughs in psychology, brain science, literature, and art that spawned an ongoing pursuit to link these disciplines.

Most fascinating to me were the exchange about unconscious mental processes that took place between the modernist artists and members of the Vienna School of Medicine, which in turn influences the interaction between art and a cognitive psychology of art, introduced by the Vienna School of Art History in the 1930s.

This led to the interaction between cognitive psychology and biology which laid the foundation for an “emotional neuroaesthetic”: an understanding of our perceptual, emotional, and empathic responses to works of art.

The first insight into the unconscious began with Baron Carl von Rokitansky, a gifted pathologist who was dean of the Vienna School of Medicine who came to the realization that, “Truth lies hidden beneath the surface.” Kandel writes:

Rokitansky compared what his clinician colleague Josef Skoda heard and saw at the bedsides of his patients with autopsy findings after their deaths. This systematic correlation of clinical and pathological findings taught them that only by going deep below the skin could they understand the nature of illness.

This same notion — that truth is hidden below the surface — profoundly influenced the work of Sigmund Freud, who trained at the Vienna School of Medicine in the Rokitansky era, and who used psychoanalysis to delve beneath the conscious minds of his patients and reveal their inner feelings. 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.

This insight implied that the brain is a creativity machine, which obtains incomplete information from the outside world and completes it. We can see this with illusions and ambiguous figures that trick our brain into thinking that we see things that are not there. In this sense, a task of figurative painting is to convince the beholder that an illusion is true.

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 cites the art historian Ernst Gombrich elaborated on the later accomplishments of Viennese modernist art:

Art is an institution to which we turn when we want to feel a shock of surprise. We feel this want because we sense that it is good for us once in a while to receive a healthy jolt. Otherwise we would so easily get stuck in a rut and could no longer adapt to the new demands that life is apt to make on us. The biological function of art, in other words, is that of a rehearsal, a training in mental gymnastics which increases our tolerance of the unexpected.

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 it will illuminate new insights in the reader about the mind, emotion, creative processes, and the unconscious.

Eric R. Kandel, a professor of brain science at Columbia University, a senior investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

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



I gave The Age of Insight to my father, a Freudian psychoanalyst, and he liked it so much he wrote a review (the link will download a PDF) 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