Your Brain on Klimt

In his new book, The Age of Insight, University Professor Eric Kandel explores the interface of art and neuroscience through portraits by three turn-of-the-century Austrian painters. Here, the Nobel Prize — winning neuroscientist shares his own insights — into his book, his past, and our love affair with pictures.

by Eric Kandel Published Summer 2012
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This was a profound insight, because it pointed out that the brain is a creativity machine. It gets incomplete information and structures it in a realistic way. Some of this is determined by our genes; that’s why we all see the universe pretty much the same way. But there are important individual differences that are determined in part by our own experience, such as the way we resolve ambiguous stimuli. Gombrich picked up on this theme, which Kris developed by focusing on ambiguous figures and showing how we could look at something and be completely tricked by what we see. In a sense, an important part of figurative painting involves convincing the beholder that the two-dimensional canvas actually conveys three-dimensional information. This is key: it opens up a way for biology to help explain how the beholder reconstructs the image in his or her mind.

The face that launched $135 million

When you stand in front of a work of art, you often feel a sense of simulation. You feel it in your body. There’s reason to believe that mirror neurons mediate a component of that. (See sidebar, next page.) Other areas of the brain are involved in empathy — how you respond to emotional aspects of facial expressions.

We even have an idea of why people fall in love with works of art. What accounts for Ronald Lauder’s paying $135 million in 2006 for Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the painting on the dust jacket of The Age of Insight?

Love of art involves a number of brain systems, but it particularly involves the brain chemical dopamine, which modulates almost all components of enjoying a work of art. The dopaminergic system is recruited for love, for addiction, for food, for sex — all positive, pleasurable reinforcements. If you show somebody a picture of his or her love object, the dopaminergic cells fire very actively. If you’re rejected in a romantic relationship and you’re shown a picture of your unrequited love, the cell response is even wilder.

What accounts for Ronald Lauder’s paying $135 million in 2006 for Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer?

I’ve been asked if this reductionist approach risks taking the magic out of art. To me, not in the slightest. We know a lot about the heart, for instance: we know it’s a muscular pump, we know how it works, we know how to fix it. Does it make it any less romantic? If you read Karl Vietor’s commentary on Goethe’s Faust or Harold Bloom’s on Shakespeare, it helps you understand the work of those poets better, but it doesn’t take the magic out of your aesthetic response. An analysis is an additional insight into certain aspects of the art. It works in parallel with other processes.

There are other people who feel that as neurobiology comes along, psychology is going to become passé. I don’t for a moment feel that way. Without good psychology, you can’t have meaningful neurobiology. Without a psychology of perception, where can neurobiology of vision begin?

It’s obvious that artists are psychologists. They have insight into human nature.

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