© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Art, Mind And Brain Intersect In Kandel's Vienna


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. My next guest won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on learning and memory, and he really needs no introduction as a neuroscientist. But there is another side to Eric Kandel that you may not know. He is an art collector, an historian of early 20th-century art in Germany and Austria, and he says he could have seen that passion as an alternate career path.

Kandel's new book "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain," takes us back to turn-of-the-century Vienna, the place of his birth, and he writes about the salons there, where artists could mingle with writers and physicians and scientists. Can you think of anywhere that happens today?

But this isn't just an art history book. Kandel also gets deep into the science of the mind, what happens in the brain when we see a beautiful work of art, how it affects our emotions, how we recognize objects and faces, too. It is written by a neuroscientist, after all.

Eric Kandel is a senior investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a university professor at Columbia University here in New York. And if I may add a personal note, he is one of the classiest scientists around. Thank you for joining us again, Dr. Kandel, good to see you.

ERIC KANDEL: Eric, Ira. It's always a pleasure for me to be here with you.


FLATOW: This book is just terrific.

KANDEL: That's very kind of you.

FLATOW: Who knew that you had this whole side of you?

KANDEL: I didn't realize I had it in me.


FLATOW: How long have you been collecting art, and...?

KANDEL: I've been collecting art for much of my adult life. I started around 1960. And my wife and I really enjoy art a great deal. We don't have a lot of money, so we have works on paper, but we enjoy them a great deal. And I come from Vienna, and I particularly like the period Vienna 1900. So this is what my book is about.

FLATOW: But let's just take a side trip about Vienna. I would think that you, who escaped Nazi Austria as a child, would be so interested in going back and collecting artwork about Vienna.

KANDEL: It's a post-traumatic stress disorder, Ira. It's the way I come to grips and try to master some of the painful moments in my life. But I do have enormous admiration for Vienna 1900, which is very different than Vienna 1938. It was a time when, as you indicated, there were no two cultures.

People interacted with each other freely. Science was part of the intellectual intercourse of the day. And Jews and non-Jews acted very productively. It was really a magical period. And my hope, and that of others, in bridging between art and science is to recreate a period like that.

Our president, Lee Bollinger, sees neuroscience as a bridging discipline. He argues that in a sense everybody at the university is working on the mind, and insofar as we understand the biology of the mind better, we can have an impact on economics and decision-making, on art and music, on many areas of the university.

FLATOW: And as you say in your book, you talk about unconscious emotions, conscious feelings, bodily expressions, that when people see a great piece of artwork, something's going on in their mind, right, and you want to know what that is.

KANDEL: Exactly, right.

FLATOW: Are we any closer to understanding what that is?

KANDEL: We're closer than we were before, but a long way from a really satisfying understanding. As you know, in most areas of science, there are long periods of beginning before we really make progress. But I think this is a very rich area, and one of the interesting things is that, even though you think what Gombrich and Riegl called the beholder's share, how you and I respond to a work of art, is an extremely difficult problem in brain biology. And it is. One can, in principle, outline sort of a set of neural circuits that are critically involved and even identify disorders that affect different components of that neural circuit and see what happens if you knock out, for example, inability to recognize faces, how it affects your response to portraiture.

Obviously if you can't see it, your response is going to be very blunted. Or you can interfere with the emotional response to it or the empathic response to it, so different components of you can really dissect apart.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, we're talking about Eric Kandel if you'd like to join us and ask him questions about his book. Also you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Let's get into some of the details in your book because it's a quite fascinating book.

One of the things you write about is the - we talked about the salons, the Zuckerkandl salon. Did I get - did I pronounce that correctly?


KANDEL: You did very well. I like that for many reasons. First of all, it was characteristic of Vienna. It was characteristic of many cities in Europe, in which ladies, often Jewish ladies, ran salons that brought together people from all walks of life: artists, writers, scientists, businesspeople, politicians to get together over tea and cakes and talk to one another.

And I particularly like the Zuckerkandl family because Berta Zuckerkandl - for two reasons. Berta Zuckerkandl's grandson, Emil Zuckerkandl, is a major biologist at Stanford, and when I began to write about his grandmother, I called him, and he gave me a lot of useful information, invited me out to his house in Palo Alto, and I saw remnants of the Zuckerkandl salon.

He had a wonderful Rodin sculpture of Mahler you would kill for. He had some of the artworks she had hanging on the wall. So that's one reason I like the Zuckerkandl salon so much. The other one is his name is Emil Zuckerkandl, and his grandfather's name was Emil Zuckerkandl, and Emil Zuckerkandl, the grandfather, was a close associate of a man called Rokitansky, who is one of the heroes of the book.

He was the dean of the University of Vienna Medical School from about 19-- I'm sorry, 1845 to about 1878, and he revolutionized medicine. He put medicine on a scientific basis. And he had an enormous impact on all of the people I write about, on Freud, on Schnitzler and then the three artists, Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele.

And he did it by pointing out that you really don't know anything about a disease state until you've explored it in enormous detail. So if you, particularly in the 1840s, if you examined a patient at the bedside, you would get his history or her history, and you'd listen to their heart and their chest, and you'd hear sounds, but you wouldn't know what was responsible for the sounds.

There was no correlation between that and the pathological anatomy. Rokitansky had a privileged position. He was head of pathology, and Vienna was the only hospital in Europe in which every single person who died was autopsied, and the autopsy was done by one person, the head of pathology. So Rokitansky did 30,000 autopsies not with his own little hands but with his colleagues.

And he collaborated with a great clinician, and so they took the clinical findings at the bedside, the peculiar sounds coming from the heart, and they showed which sounds came from the mitrovalve, which came from the tricuspid valve, and if they had any question, they would flow water through the valves and see whether they could simulate the sounds they heard clinically.

So they were able to put medicine on a scientific basis through these clinical pathological correlations. And he enunciated a dictum that was really the leitmotif for everything there was to come. He said truths are hidden from the surface. You have to go deep below the skin in order to understand what's going on.

And this is what Freud tried to do. This is what Schnitzler tried to do. This is what Klimt and Kokoschka tried to do. And I argue that these five people independently discovered different aspects of the mind, of unconscious mental processes.

Now Freud, you know, clearly was the leader, and he outlined a coherent theory of mind, which was really quite interesting, original and fascinating, but he missed certain things. He did not know very much about female sexuality.

But Schniztler and Klimt knew an enormous amount. So Klimt, for example, in his drawings, shows women pleasuring themselves. Without the need of a man, they can be in their own reveries. The historical nude of Western arts usually has a mythological woman, you know, Venus or something like that, looking out at the beholder as if she could only satisfy herself if she satisfies the viewer.

And she is nude, but she's covering her genitalia, and you don't quite know whether this is modesty or whether she's masturbating. With Klimt, there's absolutely no doubt what's going on. So - and it was done in an elegant, non-pornographic fashion. It's really quite marvelous the way these drawings are done.

And different aspects of unconscious mental processes were developed by both Klimt and his later disciples, Kokoschka and Schiele. For example, Klimt knew that if you liberate women's sexuality, you also in a sense are liberating their aggression. And the two can be fused.

And he has a wonderful painting of Judith and Holofernes - Judith, a Jewish heroine, trying to save her people from Holofernes, who has established a siege around him, gets him drunk, seduces him, and while he's in his drunken state, she cuts off his head.

And there are a number of historical depictions of this, and usually, you know, Judith, who is a young widow, a very modest woman did this out of heroism, was horrified by the deeds she did. But in Klimt's drawing, she's in a post-orgiastic phase. She's fondling the head. She's dressed in a beautiful, elegant gown. There's absolutely nothing widowish or modest about her.

So, I mean, his ability to really depict many aspects of women's life is fantastic.

FLATOW: Just fascinating. I mean, I'm talking with Eric Kandel, author of "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain." And in fact, you use Klimt on the cover of your book.

KANDEL: Yes, yes, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

FLATOW: And she has a dress that's full of cells. The fabric, it's made out of cells, right?

KANDEL: You've picked it up. So Klimt went to the Zuckerkandl salon, and from Berta Zuckerkandl's husband, Emil Zuckerkandl, he became fascinated with biology. He began to read Darwin. There was a collection of Darwin books in his library. He looked under the microscope.

He saw the difference between sperm and eggs. He went to demonstrations, to dissections. And he incorporates these biological themes into his artwork, as you pointed out.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more with Eric Kandel, author of "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present," a side of Dr. Kandel we've never talked about before. And if you'd like to talk with him, our number 1-800-989-8255. He is an art collector, an art historian, and as well as being a Nobel Prize-winner, and so he's a neuroscientist - (unintelligible), we'll get into that, too. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about neuroscience, art, the brain, the subject of the new book "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain" with Nobel Prize-winner Eric Kandel, senior investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and university professor at Columbia University right here in New York.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. It's hard to imagine the collection, you know, of all these people from different walks of life meeting in salons and discussing things.

KANDEL: Wonderful. Wonderful.

FLATOW: Today it's - hard that that could happen. Is there any place that you know that - let me go - we have a suggestion on the phone here. Let me go to Christie(ph) in Center Ridge, Colorado, is it?

CHRISTIE: Yeah, it's Cedar Ridge, Colorado. I'm a science writer, and I wanted to say that I think there is something somewhat similar to these salons going on these days. It's happening online, on social media and whatnot. I'm a contributor to a science blog that's called LastWordonNothing, and we discuss a lot of this sort of...

FLATOW: We lost her. Sorry, Christie, just the phone dropped out. But would she be correct that this is where the new talent...?

KANDEL: I'm not sufficiently familiar with that, but I can well understand it. I mean, one of the wonderful things about Internet is it's like a salon. It brings people together from different intellectual walks of life. Also we're trying to recreate this at Columbia to some degree, and I think other universities will do it.

There will be programs that will bridge neuroscience to other disciplines.

FLATOW: Did these people all know each other?


FLATOW: They did?

KANDEL: Yes, they all knew each other, and for example Freud said he purposely avoided Schnitzler even though he knew him, and he read his work, because he felt that Schnitzler through his intuition figured out a lot of the things that Freud discovered only after hard work with patients.

But he certainly knew him, and he knew of him, yes.

FLATOW: Why do scientists need to talk to artists, and why do artists need to talk to scientists?

KANDEL: Well, scientists certainly need to talk to artists because they want to fill their life with beauty, and it's inspiring to be able to go to a good exhibition and see great works of art, interact with artists. And also to try to understand the nature of art, how we respond to it, how the creative process works, is one of the great goals of science.

In addition, one would like to think that artists also benefit from what neuroscientists can bring about. For example, they certainly learned a great deal when the nature of color was dissected, and we realized how colors are put together. They learned a great deal in the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci studied the human body, did autopsies in order to see how the bones relate to one another so you can get a more realistic depiction.

And one would hope that as people understand what happens in the brain as one responds to art, as one creates art, they would be able to use those ideas to create new art forms or at least to more effectively influence certain emotional states in the brain.

FLATOW: Freud actually wrote about da Vinci.

KANDEL: Freud wrote about da Vinci, he wrote about Michelangelo. He wrote two very interesting papers, but they were really more fiction than they were fact. He himself said these were not his best works. He tried - rather than try to analyze the work of art, he tried to analyze the artist. The artist had been dead for some time, could not free-associate to his interpretations and in any way falsify them.

And there were some instances in which Freud didn't quite know all the facts right. So these were not great works. What really happened, is a Freud contemporary, were the art historians got interested in the problem. And a guy called Alois Riegl who was the head of the Vienna School of Medicine - I'm sorry, of art history, argued we have to become more scientific in art history.

And he thought that psychology is the discipline that should be incorporated into it, and he thought what is the problem we want to solve. And then he realized the critical problem in art is how the person who views it responds to it.

If you think of it, it's the most obvious thing in the world. Why does the painter do it? He doesn't do it just for himself. He wants people to look at it. And Riegl pointed out that the beholder share is critical to the completion of a work of art.

And if you think of it, Ira, you look at a painting, it's two-dimensional. You know that it's two-dimensional. It's a flat surface. And yet your brain is willing to allow your imagination to wander to see it as three-dimensional. So you are being tricked by the artist to think there's a perspective there, a distance there. Even a head, when you look at it, you see it as a three-dimensional thing.

And there's a part of you that feels this to be completely real, but there's another part of you that knows this is what your brain is doing. I'll give you an example. If I paint you while I'm looking at you, and I put your painting up on the wall, and I walk around it, your eyes will follow me. It's a common experience. I'm sure you've had this when looking at certain works of art.

FLATOW: Sure, sure.

KANDEL: If I put up a sculpture of you in the same position and walk around it, your eyes will not follow me, and that is I create a fiction out of the painting because I have to in order to create Ira Flatow looking three-dimensional, and part of that is that the eyes follow you.

With a sculpture, it is three-dimensional. No fiction is necessary.

FLATOW: Quite fascinating, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Steve(ph) in Alexandria, Virginia. Hi, Steve.


FLATOW: Hi there.

STEVE: I was intrigued with this when you mentioned Vienna because some of the best science art that I've seen has been there, and that was at the Medical Museum from - which has a fantastic collection...

KANDEL: Fantastic collection.

STEVE: Of these wax, anatomically correct...

KANDEL: Models, absolutely, yes.

STEVE: From the 1700s, I believe, and yet they - and what's so fascinating about some of them is that they represent the, I guess, very anatomically correct things like the lymph system, et cetera, in life-size images of human beings that look like they're in absolute agony because the skin has been ripped off of them.

And I just found it to be, you know, an absolutely spectacular use of art in combination with science, and actually I think it had a very practical value then, because they couldn't quite justify doing all the dissections of the human body, I think, at that time? I'm not sure. I was wondering if you had any insight into it.

KANDEL: Vienna was one of the places in which autopsy was permitted quite early. The church allowed this Austria, while it didn't in many countries of the world. But that museum is world-famous in large part because of its extraordinary collection, and people came from all over to see that, and some of those things were exported to other places.

They were just wonderful anatomical demonstrations that students used in order to study the body. I agree with you: It still is a very fine museum in the history of medicine.

FLATOW: You have a great collection in your book, and gorgeous color in your book, also. Is there - are there places we can see this artwork, any collections or exhibits that...?

KANDEL: The Neue Gallery, of course, is, in New York, the best. There is - there are two museums in Vienna that specialize in this. One is called the Oberes Belvedere, and I want to come back to that in a moment, and the other is the Leopold Museum. The Oberes Belvedere is the upper story - not the upper story, the upper building of a beautiful property, which has a lower building, as well, lower down in the campus.

And the campus lower down has a fantastic, interesting connection - collection that actually ties in with the upper one. It has a collection of a sculptor by the name of Messerschmitt. Messerschmitt was a psychotic sculptor. In a period of about - I may have this a little bit wrong - about 1780 to 1790, he made one doesn't know how many, about 50 to 60 heads, most of them his own, looking in the mirror, of different facial expressions and distortions designed to ward off the evil spirits.

They made a fantastic impact. Berta Zuckerkandl had two of them. A number of people collected these, and they had an impact on Expressionist painting. Expressionist painting takes images and distorts it. It's sort of a fusion of caricature and high art.

When you exaggerate something, you know, one responds more dramatically to it, and you see this in the Messerschmitt head. And Kokoschka started off as an Art Nouveau painter, like Klimt, but he did a sculpture called "Myself as a Warrior" that looks exactly like a Messerschmitt, and I would guess he may have been influenced by Messerschmitt, which was his first expressionist work of art, a powerful exaggeration of his face.

Not only that, but Kokoschka began to use, as Van Gogh had pioneered, the use of color in an arbitrary fashion so not just to depict nature but to depict emotion if you wanted to, to make the ears red or the fingers red or something like that. And it was a tremendous transformation.

And an architect by the name of Lowes(ph) saw this and saw a new art form emerging and told him: This is what you've got to do. Don't do any more Art Nouveau work. Klimt is great. He did it. You do something different. And for the next decade, he did magnificent portraits of other people that made a tremendous impact, in which he really developed his expressionist ideas of trying to see unconscious mental processes in other people.

FLATOW: How did you not go into this? The way - the passion, the knowledge.

KANDEL: I love it.

FLATOW: For 50 years you've been doing this.

KANDEL: I'm glad - there's nothing like science.

FLATOW: What was the decision? Did you actually have a crossroad, a point in the road you had to decide between...

KANDEL: Not between those two.


KANDEL: I'm saying this in retrospect...

FLATOW: Right.

KANDEL: ...that I could do it. But I think the time I made my decision, I was not as passionately involved in art as I am now. My choice was psychoanalysis versus neuroscience. And, my God, was that a wise decision. Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yeah. For all of us.

KANDEL: Well, I don't know for all of us. Certainly for me.

FLATOW: Well, you - anything learning - you've been involved with sea slugs for so long. Is there anything new to learn about sea slugs?

KANDEL: Unending. I'm now studying how memory's perpetuated, how you remember your first love experience for the rest of your life.

FLATOW: You learn that in a sea slug?

KANDEL: Why not?


KANDEL: They make love.


KANDEL: How do they reproduce, right? In fact, they're hermaphrodites. They have the best of all possible worlds.


FLATOW: So what are you studying there? Give us a little more about it.

KANDEL: There is a protein at the synapse that is thrown into activity when you remember something for the long term. And the function of that protein is to perpetuate that change indefinitely. And the way that protein works is that it's a self-perpetuating protein. This has been described by Stanley Prusiner. It's called prion mechanism. And in Stanley's case, it kills the cell.

So when it goes into a self-perpetuating state, it destroys the cell. Many other prion-like mechanisms have been described since then, and they either kill the cell or the protein becomes dead. This was the first description of a protein being thrown into the self-perpetuating state in which it's the normal - it is a normal function of the protein to be like this. It's completely healthy.


KANDEL: It's quite interesting.

FLATOW: That is different, isn't it?

KANDEL: It is very interesting.

FLATOW: And how does that help with memory or remember what we're doing or...

KANDEL: What it does is it translates messenger RNAs at the synapse. So when you go into a synapse, you've got to continue to produce material to keep that synapse alive, that new synapse. And what you do is you have a machinery for local protein synthesis. This regulates that machinery. And if you keep it going indefinitely, which you need, this is the way you get it done.

FLATOW: Wow. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Learning all kinds of new things today, talking with Eric Kandel. "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain." And this - it's a gorgeous book.

KANDEL: Thank you.

FLATOW: It's, you know, it's so filled with - they allowed you to do it the right way. You know, I talk to authors: They wouldn't let me do this. They wouldn't let me do that. Gorgeous photographs of the brain and the plates and things.

KANDEL: Random House did a fantastic job with this.




KANDEL: Kate Medina, my publisher, is just marvelous on this.

FLATOW: And is there a follow-up? We're going to have an act two to this? Is this - any more art and more writing about artwork or - in your mind?

KANDEL: Not at the moment.


FLATOW: I can see the effort, how long it must have taken...

KANDEL: It took me a long time.

FLATOW: ...to go into it.

KANDEL: It actually has an interesting beginning.


KANDEL: This is a digression, if you don't mind.

FLATOW: Well, that's what we're here for.

KANDEL: So about 1982, I got an honorary degree from the University of Vienna Medical School. And they asked me to give a talk on behalf of the three of us who were getting an honorary degree. And I first thought I was going to relive '38, '39 period that I was treated so terribly. And then I said to myself, don't be a shmegegge. There's lots of time to express your disappointment. This is - they're honoring you. Be gracious. So I thought, what would I do? And I thought I would do something on the history of the Vienna School of Medicine, what it contributed. And this is where I discovered Rokitansky.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

KANDEL: Then, on a later occasion, I belong to a very nice club in New York, called the Practitioners Club - I'm not a practitioner, but I somehow belong - that meet six times a year in the wintertime for dinner. And we take turns giving talks. And I thought I would give it on my passion, Viennese Expressionism. And the talk went over fairly well. When it's over, I realized there's a connection between my lecture in Vienna and this, and that got me going many years ago. And when I had a break more recently, I decided I would start in on that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you're still doing research with your wife also?

KANDEL: I've started recently, after 55 years of marriage. We thought we'd put it in the line and we'd collaborate together. Not an easy thing to do, but very, very enjoyable for the two of us.

FLATOW: What are you looking into together?

KANDEL: Denise has pioneered the study of how kids get involved in drugs. She's a wonderful epidemiologist. And she was the first one to point out that kids don't get involved with heroin or cocaine. They start with smoking or drinking, which she called the gateway drugs.

And so she wanted, after a while, to know is this just a correlation, or is this a causative mechanism? So we explored it together. We used mice, and we asked, does it make a difference whether you give nicotine first and then cocaine, or cocaine first and then nicotine? So when we gave cocaine first, we found we dramatically enhanced the effect of cocaine.


KANDEL: Give nicotine brrr, unbelievable. If you give cocaine first, no effect in nicotine. So it's unidirectional. The gateway drug tremendously enhances. And we think that one of the reasons people may get hooked on cocaine is because - Denise, when she examined the data, found that most of the people who start cocaine are smoking at that time. And this effect really catches you.


KANDEL: Yeah, yeah. And we figured out how it works in a behavioral sense, physiological sense, gene expression. We really analyzed it. Amir Levine was the guy who led this project in my lab. He did a superb job.

FLATOW: So nicotine is an entry level to cocaine.

KANDEL: Yes. Now, people are saying there's multiple reasons for giving up nicotine. Nora Volkow, for example, has really thought this is a key finding. She's head of NIDA.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. Eric, thank you.

KANDEL: Pleasure to be here as always.

FLATOW: Good luck to you.

KANDEL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you. With a true renaissance man, Eric Kandel, author of "The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain, also senior investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, university professor at Columbia University here in New York. Happy holidays to you.

KANDEL: Happy holidays to you, and thank you very much. You're very gracious.

FLATOW: You're always welcome back any time you would like.

KANDEL: Thank you.

FLATOW: After the break, we're going to go deep down into the Pacific, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Wonder what it's like there, seven miles below the sea level. We're going to find out from the first person who was ever there, still around to tell us about it. So stay tuned. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.