Eric Kandel

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


Eric Kandel, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, has an abiding interest in art for its own sake, and also in how art can inform his primary work in brain science, especially as both art and science can be understood through reductionism.

My central premise is that although the reductionist approaches of scientists and artists are not identical in their aims—scientists use reductionism to solve the complex problem and artists use it to elicit a new perceptual and emotional response in the beholder—they are analogous (p. 6).  

Kandel’s aim, however, is more than just explaining how reductionism is used in brain science and in modern art. He is also out to show in a larger sense how science and the arts, which now exist as “two cultures,” are more alike than not. 

My purpose in this book is to highlight one way of closing the chasm by focusing on a common point at which the two cultures can meet and influence each other—in modern brain science and in modern art. Both brain science and abstract art address, in direct and compelling fashion, questions and goals that are central to humanistic thought. In this pursuit they share, to a surprising degree, common methodologies (p. 3).   

This slim volume comprises four parts amply supplied with schematics of brain structures and nerve tracts, and with reproductions of modern art works. The two middle parts are concerned with how reductionism applies to brain science and to art, respectively. The introduction places the topic within the context of the two-culture divide. The final part argues that art reduced to a set of core elements (e.g., form, line, color, and light) can add to the understanding of how the brain works, just as brain science reduced to a set of core elements (e.g., top down and bottom up processing of images) can add to the understanding of how art can be perceived and used to evoke certain responses.      

Bottom up processing refers to “universal rules that are largely built into the brain at birth by biological evolution and enable us to extract key elements of images in the physical world, such as contours, intersections, and the crossings of lines and junctions” (p. 22) This inborn circuitry is all that is needed for perceiving figurative art, and as a result produces uniform perceptions among viewers. Top down processing refers to the information the brain needs to perceive images when bottom up processing is insufficient, like in the case of abstract painting. It “incorporates the information our brain receives from the external world with knowledge based on learning from earlier experiences and hypotheses testing.” This includes “people we have seen and known, environments we have been in, as well as memories of other works of art we have encountered” (p. 23). Top down processing thus brings the viewer into the creative process and results in differences in perceptions among individuals of a particular work of art.  

In Kandel’s and many others’ telling, modern art was the response to the advent and expanding use of photography. No longer was figurative painting needed to render life as it is. Artists became free to explore and experiment with other ways to generate perceptions of life. Starting with impressionism and progressing through abstract expressionism and pop art, Kandel describes how painters in particular reduced their art to form, line, color, and light. They invited—demanded—that viewers participate in creating what they perceive. Brain science was able to use these elements also to map places in the brain where this processing takes place and to associate these elements with the different responses they produce. To illustrate these concepts, Kandel features the works of Turner, Monet, Kandinsky, Mondrian, de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Morris, and Warhol among others.  

In the end, Kandel is asserting—hoping—that reductionism in art will serve brain science because it will show “how we process unconscious and conscious perception, emotion, and empathy.” (p. 188). And, that reductionism in brain science will help artists “enhance traditional introspection with the knowledge of how some aspects of our mind work” (p. 189).

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