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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Monkey see, monkey fire neuron

© Terese Winslow

There is a large area of the brain that is concerned with faces. Scientists have done imaging experiments demonstrating that a certain area lights up when you show a subject a face, but not, say, when you show pictures of a house. Others have done imaging experiments with macaque monkeys.

The monkey experiments are fascinating. If you show a monkey the face of a monkey, a cell fires. If you show a monkey a cartoon of the face, it fires even more dramatically, because the image is an exaggeration. But you have to show the monkey the entire face: if you leave out the mouth or the eyes, the cell doesn’t respond. Nor do cells respond if you turn the face upside down. But if you exaggerate the face by pushing the eyes apart or pulling them closer together, the cells go wild.

In 1996 the Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered that there are other areas of the brain in the supplementary motor cortex involved in responding to simulation. There are two areas that have a population of cells called mirror neurons that respond in a monkey’s brain (and perhaps in the human brain) not only when the monkey picks up a peanut, but when you pick up a peanut. They respond to other people’s actions. 

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