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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Closing the circle

I am Viennese, and I am interested in Vienna for obvious reasons. But my involvement with it is complicated. I have great disdain for the Vienna of 1938 and 1939, a terribly traumatic period for me. In part, my book is sort of an attempt to come to grips with posttraumatic stress, to work it through. My wife, who was hiding in the south of France during the war, has a similar obsession. She also had more difficult experiences than I. But because the French were more helpful to Jews than the Austrians were, she has a more positive attitude toward the French than I have toward the Viennese.

My attitude toward contemporary Austrians is changing, however, because they are changing. When I won the Nobel Prize in 2000, the phone rang off the hook. A lot of the calls were from Vienna. One newspaper reporter said, “Ah, isn’t it wonderful: another Austrian Nobel Prize.” I reminded him that this was an American Nobel Prize — an American Jewish Nobel Prize.

I was soon contacted by the president of Austria at the time, Thomas Klestil, who wanted to know how his country could recognize me. I told him that recognition was not what I needed. What I wanted was to have a symposium at the University of Vienna on the response of Austria to National Socialism. Klestil put me in touch with the minister of culture, who set aside the necessary funds. With the help of my friend and colleague Fritz Stern, we organized what turned out to be a strong and interesting symposium.

But while I was there, I was struck that the University of Vienna sits on the part of the Ringstrasse called the Karl-Lueger-Ring, named for the turn-of-the-century mayor of Vienna whose anti-Semitic platform was such an inspiration to Hitler that he adopted it himself. Several of us began to publicly object to the idea that the university should sit on a street with such a name, and we urged them to change the name to Universitätsring — University Ring.

The Austrians waltzed around the decision for years. Finally, just this spring, the city council, with support from the current president of Austria, Heinz Fischer, a marvelous progressive leader, approved changing the name. The old signs have come down and the new signs have gone up.

Eric Kandel received the 2000 Nobel Prize for his work on memory storage in the brain. He is a University Professor at Columbia, the director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, and a senior investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Kandel is a codirector of Columbia’s Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative.

Listen to Eric Kandel discuss Vienna, art, and neurobiology athttp://news.columbia.edu/research/2773

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