Science, Art Probe Mind's Nature

Cape Times (South Africa), August 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Science, Art Probe Mind's Nature


BYLINE: REVIEW: Dawn Garisch

Eric Kandel

Random House

"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 the mind."

During the past two decades the study of brain science has undergone a revolution - one that will surely have a positive effect. Recent inventions allow us to study more accurately the astonishing organ of perception, emotion and meaning-making residing in our skulls.

If you want to read an eloquent, insightful and riveting account of this development, I can highly recommend The Age of Insight, written by Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist and teacher of intellectual history Eric Kandel.

The tome is beautifully illustrated, and my review copy is prickling with thin post-its, marking many fascinating facts and insights.

The central question the book investigates is: what does someone looking at a painting bring to the experience - what Kandel refers to as "the beholder's share"?

This is the first welcome surprise - that a serious scientific work foregrounds both art and emotion as key elements in our search to understand ourselves.

In attempting to answer this question, the author starts in Vienna in the early 1900s. Here, for the first time in the West, medical scientists, writers and artists began to get curious about what lies beneath surface concerns.

This happened for several reasons. The microscope and evolutionary theory allowed biologists to track cellular and genetic influences that were previously invisible.

The taboo on autopsy was lifted, which permitted physicians to correlate symptoms with pathology. Sigmund Freud's work recognised and recorded the importance of dreams, instinctual drives and emotional life as contributing to behaviour.

In art, the invention of photography forced painters away from the quest for accurate representation and into the realm of the personal interior.

Cross-fertilisation between that which we usually regard as mutually incompatible - art and science, emotion and reason, logic and creativity - happened in salons or society meeting places.

Here the artists, doctors and writers - who were investigating what lay beneath facial expressions, emotional and physical symptoms, and dreams - could exchange ideas.

As a result Gustav Klimt met doctors who allowed him into the dissection rooms and tutored him in medical discoveries.

His famous portraits incorporate cells of reproduction, embryology and evolutionary theory. Freud could admire the writer/doctor Arthur Schnitzler's ability to reveal interior monologue. …

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