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The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present

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A brilliant book by Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight takes us to Vienna 1900, where leaders in science, medicine, and art began a revolution that changed forever how we think about the human mind—our conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions—and how mind and brain relate to art.
At the turn of the century, Vienna was the cultural capital of Europe. Artists and scientists met in glittering salons, where they freely exchanged ideas that led to revolutionary breakthroughs in psychology, brain science, literature, and art. Kandel takes us into the world of Vienna to trace, in rich and rewarding detail, the ideas and advances made then, and their enduring influence today.
The Vienna School of Medicine led the way with its realization that truth lies hidden beneath the surface. That principle infused Viennese culture and strongly influenced the other pioneers of Vienna 1900. Sigmund Freud shocked the world with his insights into how our everyday unconscious aggressive and erotic desires are repressed and disguised in symbols, dreams, and behavior. Arthur Schnitzler revealed women’s unconscious sexuality in his novels through his innovative use of the interior monologue. Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele created startlingly evocative and honest portraits that expressed unconscious lust, desire, anxiety, and the fear of death.
Kandel tells the story of how these pioneers—Freud, Schnitzler, Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele—inspired by the Vienna School of Medicine, in turn influenced the founders of the Vienna School of Art History to ask pivotal questions such as What does the viewer bring to a work of art? How does the beholder respond to it? These questions prompted new and ongoing discoveries in psychology and brain biology, leading to revelations about how we see and perceive, how we think and feel, and how we respond to and create works of art. Kandel, one of the leading scientific thinkers of our time, places these five innovators in the context of today’s cutting-edge science and gives us a new understanding of the modernist art of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele, as well as the school of thought of Freud and Schnitzler. Reinvigorating the intellectual enquiry that began in Vienna 1900, The Age of Insight is a wonderfully written, superbly researched, and beautifully illustrated book that also provides a foundation for future work in neuroscience and the humanities. It is an extraordinary book from an international leader in neuroscience and intellectual history.

636 pages, Hardcover

First published March 27, 2012

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About the author

Eric R. Kandel

29 books491 followers
Eric Richard Kandel is an Austrian-American medical doctor with a specialization in psychology and neuroscience. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. He shared the prize with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard.

Kandel is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a Senior Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was also the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, which is now the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 162 reviews
Profile Image for Adrian.
13 reviews11 followers
December 30, 2013
Best book about bridging the two cultures: art(humanitarian) and science. The author already has a Nobel prize, so you know you are in good hands. We should invent a new award for books like these actually. It is even better if you read the book in Vienna as you can also see some of the paintings in the Upper Belvedere and visit the other 2 museums (Josephinum and Freud) that had a big role in Kandel's life and in the early history of the ideas behind this book. Will try to read it again after I read some of the books included in its gigantic bibliography. Well done! Put it on the same shelf with Gombrich and Arnheim. I would also recommend to read this book following Kandel's autobiography: In Search of Memory, as the two books intersect in countless ways. I almost think he intended to write a 1000 pages book to cover both subjects: his life and the Vienna influence on modern research (especially in medicine, biology, psychology, literature, art). The influence of the Vienna Circle on the physics and mathematics of the 20th century is left aside maybe because the author is not an expert on these topics. When you look back and see that you had people like Godel, Wittgenstein, Klimt, Freud, Jung (for a brief period) and others living in the same city, you can only wonder how the world would have looked like without the two wars?
Profile Image for E. G..
1,112 reviews669 followers
June 9, 2016

--The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present

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Profile Image for SCARABOOKS.
281 reviews196 followers
December 5, 2019
Passeggiata panoramica magnifica, con guida di livello: partenza dalla Vienna di inizio novecento a venire a noi, tra psicologia, neuroscienza, pittura e letteratura.
Quando si dice che un libro (peraltro un oggetto di pregio di per se: grazie anche da qui a chi me lo ha regalato) ti cambia il modo di vedere le cose. In questo caso, è vero alla lettera.

Passeggiando, oltre a scoprire cose sorprendenti, si confermano anche cose importanti: che le neuroscienze sono una delle frontiere più avanzate del cammino della conoscenza (forse la più avanzata); che attraverso le opere d’arte che ha prodotto, il cervello umano ha anticipato a volte di secoli quello che poi la scienza ha dimostrato in laboratorio (il che conferma su un altro piano che prima vengono le scoperte e poi viene la ricerca); che bisogna puntare diritti ad una unificazione in una visione olistica non solo delle scienze, ma anche delle scienze e delle arti; che per la pittura e per la narrativa, come per tutto quello che ci passa davanti, siamo noi che letteralmente creiamo nella nostra mente ciò che guardiamo e leggiamo: è vero ogni volta, per tutti e per ciascuno. Il nostro cervello funziona così: non è né un registratore, né una macchina fotografica. E mi pare proprio una cosa bella.
Profile Image for Mehtap exotiquetv.
358 reviews238 followers
February 19, 2021
Eric Kandel. Eine Koryphäe im Gebiet Neurowissenschaften hat es wieder mal geschafft, ein faszinierendes, unfassbar detailliertes wissenschaftliches Buch auf den Markt zu bringen, dass sowohl Kunst als auch die Wirkmechanismen des Gehirns vereint.

Das Buch ist aufgeteilt in 2 Segmente. In dem ersten Bereich spricht Kandel über Künstler und Wissenschaftler wie Klimt, Kokoschova, Leonardo daVinci, Freud, Schnitzler und verschmilzt die Erkenntnisse der Wissenschaft und wie sie Kunst beeinflusst hat. Aber auch warum wir Menschen bei Kunst reagieren. Das Ganze wird geschmückt mit Abbildungen der Künstler, so dass man immer weiß worauf er sich bezieht. Auf diese Weise lernt man sehr viel über sich selbst und warum man bei Kunst zum Nachdenken angeregt wird.

Im zweiten Teil des Buches wird es sehr neurowissenschaftlich. In diesem Bereich arbeitet Kandel alle Meilensteine der Neurowissenschaft auf brillante Weise auf - ohne den Bezug zur Kunst zu verlieren. Dieses Buch ist ein must-read weil es literarisch einzigartig ist.
Profile Image for Kunal Sen.
326 reviews46 followers
December 31, 2013
My year ended on a high note, by finishing this most remarkable book – Eric R Kandel’s The Age of Insight – The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present. The timing of this book was remarkable for me because it happened on the same year when my primary focus was to find a bridge that I can use to cross at will between my two passions – science and art. Right after I wrote a blog on this topic (Artists without Science), my Art Historian friend Arjun Gupta recommended the book to me. I immediately grabbed it and started reading, but quickly realized that it is not a book that I should read quickly, during my long daily commute, but rather cherish as a good bottle of wine, slowly, deliberately, and take my time to explore the art that the author uses to illustrate his point. (There was also a practical side to it – the book was too heavy to be carried around).

Let me start with the author. Eric Kandel is a neuroscientist who has been doing some of the most remarkable work in his field, and during a time where there is a revolutionary explosion of new ideas, theories, and experimental results that are changing our view of the mind in the most fundamental ways. Kandel’s work on the mechanism of memory also earned him a Nobel Prize in the year 2000. What makes Eric Kandel unique is not only his scientific authority, but also his deep understanding of the history of visual arts, and his knowledge and understanding of one of most remarkable time and place when it comes to modernist art – Vienna around the turn of the last century.

Kandel starts the book with a detailed recounting of Vienna around 1900. It was a remarkable place and time when a number of brilliant people came together, each passionately involved in understanding the human mind, but from entirely different perspectives, and most unusually, they actually talked and exchanged ideas. There were philosophers like Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Gödel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, musicians like Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schonberg, and Alban Berg, architect Otto Wagner, writer Arthur Schnitzler, and artists like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka. A common theme that connected these individuals were the evolving understanding that much of what happens in our mind is below the level of conscious thought. The new scientific ideas prompted the artists to look deep inside and explore and expose what is hiding deep within our minds.

Such interactions, between people of different disciplines does not happen all that often, but it shows the fantastic creative potential when thinkers cross the line and take a look at what others are doing. We are incredibly lucky to live in one such period, when suddenly the walls between a number of different domains of knowledge are starting to collapse. Many age old philosophical questions are now being revisited as scientific problems. We are making remarkable progress in understanding mysterious phenomenon such as consciousness. We are connecting our sense of morality with the biology of evolution. This book does a remarkable job of connecting our sense of visual aesthetics with structures in our brain, the complex interactions between different parts of the brain, and our evolutionary history. It shows how successful artists “discover” these properties subconsciously, and learns how to exploit them to create the desired emotional effect on the audience. It also shows how the mind of the beholder, and not just the artist, that is at play here.
In the rest of the book he carefully pick up different aspects of visual aesthetics and connects them with what we know today about the brain and the mind. It is a fascinating journey, beautifully illustrated with various artistic examples. Many of these pieces were familiar to me, but the book provided an entirely new perspective of looking at them. That to me is the essence of a great book and a great idea -- it makes you look at familiar things in novel ways.

The author does not claim that we understand it all. These are just scientific possibilities at this point, were some ideas are more rigorously explored than others. But just as the brilliant neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran also points out in his book The Tell-Tale Brain – a Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, it opens the door that these speculative ideas can finally be explored experimentally. This is a huge step from purely conjectural thoughts where there is no way to check if the idea can actually stand on it legs.

It is just as important to realize that obtaining a deeper understanding of why a certain piece of art work emotionally does not steal away from the pure enjoyment. In fact I believe, from my own subjective experience, it could sharpens one’s ability to enjoy art, and thus make the pleasure even more pleasurable. It is no different than our understanding of why human society, as an evolutionary entity, needs the emotion of “love” to tie us together as social units, makes it any more difficult for us to fall in love. We humans have a natural tendency to romanticize certain things as magical, as if beyond understanding. However, we have seen again and again in history, things don’t have to be magical to be fascinating. There was a time, not too long ago, when sunrise and sunset were seen as magical. Today we know with all certainty how it works. But knowing all that, sitting on a sea shore, the sunset looks no less amazing or romantic. In fact, knowing that the sun is one of the billions of stars around us, and the fact there are more starts in the known universe than there are all the grains of sand on earth, makes it even more amazing.
Profile Image for Erin.
1,817 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2012
By far, this is one of the worst books I have ever read. I thought I was getting an interesting piece on how the brain reacts when viewing art..instead I got a hero worship guide to some of the most questionable people in art & science. This book really shows how dangerous it is that a few wealthy elite can virtually take over the arts and sciences in a city and use that wealth and influence to propagate garbage. The "artists" the author worships are literally perverts..one,a man who not only enjoyed painting himself masturbating, but was later arrested and served jailtime for molesting at least one underage model. The author defends him by saying "It was her word against his! No proof!"...except it WAS proved in a court of law. The second "artist" is a man who paid female models to masturbate or engage in lesbian acts for him to draw for his own private enjoyment later. The author claims this was so liberating for women...because we all know women engage in paid sexual activity to be liberated, not out of desperation. This same artist's public work contained women dressed in garments made of swirling sperm & ovum and other such nonsense. I don't consider any of this art...the true definition of art is that it raises you up or invokes deep emotion.... it also requires talent. the author also enjoys the same hero worship of Freud and darwin, two perfect examples yet again of how connections really perpetuate those who deserve no place in history. Freud was a nutjob who never used the scientific method to back up any of his work..instead he projected his own thoughts and feelings on to his patients. Darwin was a eugenicist who believed he could create his own master race by breeding his children and that of his friends together...in fact, it was Darwin's works of eugenics which inspired both Hitler and early Planned Parenthood, including the forced sterilization of thousands of American black and retarded women. Funny how those facts have been largely forgotten. All in all, it's hard to take this author seriously... his own bias renders him unqualified for this subject.
2 reviews7 followers
July 29, 2012
This is an incredible book, a real tour de force in explaining in layman's terms some of the most amazing and important recent developments in neuroscience, biology and psychology, at the same time relating them to the artistic achievements of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka in Vienna 1900. If there is a flaw, it is Kandel's avoidance of any discussion of music, and especially of Schoenberg, who also painted artworks that fit much better into his thesis than those of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka. The book would have benefited from a reading of the Schoenberg-Kandinsky correspondence. After all, it does not make sense to discuss the influence of the unconscious on art without quoting Schoenberg ("art belongs to the unconscious"). Nevertheless, the book is fascinating to read. And naturally on the science side, Kandel, a nobel prize winner for his work in neuroscience, is unparalleled. His goal is to make the science accessible and to open a dialogue between the sciences and humanities. In fact, the science is tough for someone unfamiliar with the biology of the eye or brain, but after 500 pages, even a layman will feel like he/she understands a bit how things really work inside our heads. Recommended for anyone who wants to understand the human brain and behavior, or enjoys good art, or both.
Profile Image for Robert.
Author 14 books94 followers
May 30, 2020
Eric Kandel's book, The Age of Insight, is a brilliant study of the interrelationship between what we think of as the theory of mind and the theory of art as mediated by the science of the brain, a topic for which he won a Nobel prize in biology/physiology.

Kandel, born in Vienna and emigrated to the US as a boy, opens the book with an assessment of the painters Klimpt, Kokoshka, and Shiele and the psychologist Freud, all of whom were part of Vienna's remarkable cultural life circa 1900.

Freud is foundational to this study in that he proposed we live our lives only dimly aware that beneath consciousness lies a very active unconscious, which manifests itself not only in dreams but in everyday life. His theorizing coincided with and supported Viennese modernism/expressionism, an attempt to depict the dramas of interior life as opposed to the realistic scenes of exterior life. The artists in question are shocking in many ways because, Kandel argues, they were exploring realities hitherto hidden from the arts. He goes further when he makes the scientific case for ways in which Viennese expressionism reflected what we were coming to know as the biology of the brain. In some ways, Kokoshka et al ran ahead of science, in fact. Freud's theorizing, after all, lacked technical support for decades in the form of MRIs, etc., which could pinpoint areas of the brain engaged by representations of feeling as opposed to representations of physical fact.

Kandel is generous in acknowledging the leading figures in the arts and sciences he cites as he makes his larger argument. For a wholly-consumed scientist most of his life, his appreciation of painting in particular is impressive. He does not advance Vienna 1900 as a be-all-and-end-all in the world of western culture, but he makes a solid case, and he adds to this case a very sophisticated survey of relevant scientific advances, covering brain biology, creativity, memory, vision, and language.

In conclusion, Kandel calls for a continuation and deepening of the dialogue between the arts and sciences. Many on the humanistic side of the discussion might wonder who would be an appropriate scientific counterpart. Kandel definitely is one such figure; he cites dozens of others. This is a hopeful and encouraging book, albeit a challenging one. It's not light reading. But it's informed by genius.
Profile Image for Susan.
1,814 reviews17 followers
February 10, 2015
Actually three books in one. The first is Vienna 1900 and includes a fine introduction to Freud as well as three artists – Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. (The latter can be quite off-putting, but is a good example for some of the points made later in the book). The largest part of the book is devoted to understanding how the senses and brain perceive and interpret art and includes a truly phenomenal overview of about a century of brain research. The third book is more philosophical and explores creativity and consciousness. Extremely well written and illustrated, for anyone interested in psychology, perception, or neuroscience
Profile Image for Ci.
960 reviews6 followers
May 4, 2016
Neuroscientist Eric Kandel’s ambitious tome “The age of insight” aims to link the development of the unconscious between science and art. The linking bridge is the brain biology and works from three fin-de-siècle Viennese painters: Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele. Even with all its polite caveats, this tome is a reductionist attempt that only partially achieved its goal. It is insightful, up to a point. But that point has been enthusiastically passed as the author overreaching for the cellular explanation on how do we experience art.

Its merit lies in reminding us how different that human eyes see from that a mechanic process, how much “top-down” processing of memory, cultural knowledge, expectations and moods influence what we see in our mind’s eye. The author reminds us that art, in its essence, stimulates us to see the world from a different viewpoint, provoking reactions from extracting what he termed “the emotional primitives” (elements in visual art that elicit emotions). The author largely succeeded to reduce the three painters’ selected work into such “emotional primitives” from the visual elements. He uses extensive examples from Klimt’s decorative elements of fertility symbols, the color and lines of Kokoschka, and the subjective matters in Schiele. (Klimt’s decorative smoothness makes good book covers, Kokoschka may not, and the grotesque in Schiele repels.)

As the author boldly asserts “an understanding of the biology of the brain will most likely contribute to a broader cultural framework for art history, aesthetics, and cognitive psychology”. Ambitious indeed.
Profile Image for marcia.
522 reviews13 followers
January 1, 2020
The Age of Insight is neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel's attempt to connect art with science using the works of Viennese artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. The first half is excellent and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Kandel gives an overview of the city at the turn of the 20th Century, of artists and scientists who were encouraged by their environment to create extraordinary work. As someone is fascinated with Vienna from a cultural perspective, this is exactly what I read this book for. The second half is where the book loses steam. The language is too technical and the connections he makes are weak. While it's interesting to learn about the scientific basis behind art principles, his claims lack nuance as he's merely cherrypicking data to suit his narrative. Moreover, I don't think it's possible to come to any definitive conclusion while focusing on such a narrow scope of art.
Profile Image for Annie.
382 reviews
May 12, 2016
This is, quite honestly, the best book I have read this year. It will probably be the best book I read all year too. It combined so many of my interests (art, psychology, neurology, art criticism, and art history) and was written so beautifully and convincingly that I enjoyed every page of it. I picked it up from the library because I was researching Klimt, and this was just a whimsical find. I need to give in to flights of whimsy more often. I think I have a greater appreciation for Freud and his contributions to psychology now than when I had to take a developmental psychology in college, quite honestly. I can't sing this book's praises highly enough.

I would read anything else this author wrote; Mr. Kandel has definitely made a fan.
Profile Image for Marzie.
1,118 reviews92 followers
April 2, 2013

This promises to be a long, dense read but I already am fascinated after the first two chapters....
Profile Image for c e c e l i a.
76 reviews14 followers
April 17, 2022
never actually finished this but shhhh
was the centre of my personal statement <3

(removing things from my currently reading... goodreads u need to let me dnf stuff pls)
Profile Image for Jeremy.
285 reviews2 followers
April 29, 2013
I'm almost finished with this book and I recommend it. It's not as good as his previous book, In Search of Memory, but how can it be? That was his life's work. This one is about the scientific and artistic accomplishments of turn of the century Austria, and how they contributed (or relate) to neuroscience developments. Kandel did as good a job as he could linking the two subjects: Austrian history and modern neuroscience. But they are two different subjects. If you like them both, it's a good read. If you're interested in learning more about Freud, modernist painting, and how the brain interprets faces and meanings from what you see, then it's up your alley. If only one of these subjects interest you, then parts of this book may bore you.

Update: the neuroscience in the last chapters is very interesting. This isn't one of those books that just rambles. So I do appreciate that.

Also, the illustrations are supposed to be in color, which doesn't show up on the kindle, being black and white. Not only that, but the kindle illustrations are pathetically low resolution, low quality scans. Seriously, they could do better than that.
730 reviews
October 14, 2012
Because I have listened to Eric Kandel several times when he discusses what neuroscience knows about human brain behavior when a specific area of the brain has been damaged, I anticipated this book would follow that scientific endeavor. However, Kandel (a recipient of the 2000 Nobel in physiology) centers this book on understanding the unconscious as well as the conscious in art and begins with art in Vienna in the early 20th Century. He addresses what those artists were portraying as they shifted from 3 dimensional to 2 dimensional art as they interacted with psychiatrists in the small community of Vienna during that period; but he is also most insightful in the research done on the consciousness of the beholder. The book only lagged when he gave a total scientific description of which section of the brain energizes for each act of perception, awareness, empathy, creativity, etc. Unless one is educated in the activity of the brain, one probably doesn't actively question what section of the brain is activated during each activity of the day. The rest of the book is spellbinding as well as awesome.
Profile Image for Frank Spencer.
Author 1 book41 followers
April 15, 2012
This book has a good combination of information about neuroscience and about art. The author uses three artists who worked around the time of Freud in Vienna to show how our brains process art and how processes outside of our conscious awareness are at work all of the time. He hopes that the new advances in neuroscience will allow more cooperation between those working in several fields to develop a theory of how we respond to art. There are implications for how we help people to cope and manage their reactions to their environments. As a boy growing up on a farm in Vermont in the 1950's my experience varied from the experience of those born in Vienna in the 1850's. The descriptions in the book of how processing units in the brain(areas, cell assemblies, chemicals) work together and inhibit one another is very good.
Profile Image for John Hassmann.
19 reviews1 follower
December 3, 2021
There was lots of meandering around topics and weak argumentation. It seemed like this was a chance to make some radical new claims about aesthetics and the brain. It ended up being a very diligently researched, but dull restatement of what lots of prominent academic juggernauts have said. There was a lot of cool findings restated from Freud, Jung, Gombrich, Van Gogh, Ramachandran, Zeki and so many others but ultimately nothing new synthesized. It was a more conservative survey of lots of topics, it seems, than an innovative effort to create something new, which is what a book should try to do. There was more to be milked on this topic and it disappointingly wasn’t. Nonetheless, I learned some cool things that I hadn’t before and Kandel is obviously a smart dude. The ideation was just sort of haphazardly strewn about and not concerted, which made it hard to follow.
Profile Image for Rob Boone.
33 reviews7 followers
January 29, 2014
This is one of the most fascinating things I've read, and it's remarkably well-written. By exploring early 20th century Vienna (Klimt, Freud, Kokoshka), Kandel explores all of us. The book is primarily about our relationship to art, but ultimately, it's about our striving, if you subscribe to the belief that art is the highest point in the pyramid of human achievement. What we strive for defines us more accurately than any other measure, and Kandel explains quite well how what we currently strive for began in this nearly perfect city.

Incidentally, it also bumped Vienna up a bit on my to-visit list.
Profile Image for Alejo.
11 reviews1 follower
February 9, 2014
A century after the conversation between neuroscience, art an psychology began a few questions have been already answered and this book presents them in a fascinating way.

The most interesting thing about this book though, is the possibility of contemplating the vastness of the mysteries of the brain and to take a sneak peek at the new questions posed by this conversation that scientists and thinkers are challenged to tackle in the years to come.

Profile Image for Monica Davis.
Author 11 books22 followers
July 25, 2016
A well structured treatise on the conceivable (perhaps necessary) convergence of disciplines from the arts and sciences to reach a more comprehensive understanding of the human mind. In the context of the subjects the author has chosen, he offers illustrations and case studies as examples to supplement his compelling arguments. Kandel's “Insight” gives one pause to reflect on and gain a deeper appreciation of not only art forms, but the world in general.
Profile Image for Karen.
32 reviews5 followers
April 16, 2013
I read this book a few months ago before I traveled to Vienna. It was an excellent introduction to Vienna at the turn of the last century. In addition, "The Age of Insight" also provides a rich historical guide to major thinkers in neuroscience. Be sure to read the last chapter, "Knowing Ourselves: The New Dialogue Between Art and Science." That chapter alone is worth the price of the book.
33 reviews2 followers
September 24, 2012
An amazing book that bridges science with the arts; beautifully illustrated and challenges the reader to understand the connection between the rational and emotional parts of our brain. A real tour de force.
Profile Image for Bob Haar.
23 reviews
March 12, 2013
Wow. Bought this book after reading it. Very rare for me.
Profile Image for Vincent.
45 reviews5 followers
October 5, 2012
Eric Kandel deserves a lot of praise. Not only did his pioneering work on the neurobiology of memory pave the way for our modern understanding of mind, he has also untiringly pursued the integration of neuroscience and psychiatry. Moreover, he has always resisted going along with the widespread dismissal of Freudian thought in neuroscience, and kept an open mind with regard to psychoanalysis. For all his work, Kandel deserves praise.

But not for this book.

While I enjoyed his depiction of coffeehouse Vienna, where a new understanding of humanity was translated into medical practice, psychological thought and artistic expression, the book is mostly a failed attempt at integrating neuroscience and art. Failed, because the discussion of art is too limited in scope. Failed, because much of the neuroscience is superfluous. Failed, because these two strands only meet in a superficial, trivial fashion - it hardly ever becomes clear how the neuroscience of art perception is anything more than the neuroscience of perception, let alone how neuroscience could influence art, or the theorizing about it.

Moreover, despite Kandel's eminence in the field, his neuroscience is oversimplified. This is not just due to the popular nature of the book, it really seems like Kandel wants to shoehorn empirical data into his framework of how minds work. A naive reader might be forgiven for thinking that neuroscientists have no problem distinguishing conscious from non-conscious processes, that the social brain is a clearly delineated system and that brain lateralization holds the key to understanding creativity. However, none of this is the case and Kandel is most definitely overplaying the implications and certainty of the research he discusses.

This book could have been interesting, if it had been a more earnest attempt to bridge the gap between art and science. Spending more time on accurately portraying the state of neuroscience, having art historians weigh in on the claims about Vienna 1900 and focusing more on those areas where neuroscience and art theory can inform each other, might have made for a more enlightening read.
Profile Image for Leanne.
580 reviews46 followers
September 17, 2018
I agree with other reviewers that this is really two books: First, the intellectual explosion that fin-de-siecle Vienna saw resulting from the tremendous excitement of Darwin’s theory of evolution; and second what brain science can tell us about how we appreciate art. That is, how biology informs our aesthetic judgements.

The first part is really a tour de force. in fact, I would say it is required reading for anyone traveling to Vienna or anyone with any interest in the arts and intellectual ferment of that time.. Has any place in time seen quite that number of intellectual and artistic giants as Vienna 1900? From Godel and Freud to Wittgenstein, Klimt, Otto Wagner, Mahler, etc etc etc… Kandel’s book goes a long way in not just describing this city of dreams but in explaining how science opened up a new world.

The second part of the book, I had real trouble with. I hesitate to argue with a Nobel Prize winning neurobiologist and yet even if I grant him that every single scientific fact he uses in the book is correct, his conclusions do not follow because for it to be selected in the way he describes, all cultures would share the same basic predilections—and this is simply not true. Human beings may be hard wired to see faces in some manner --but it was really mainly in the West that the nude, for example, became so prevalent and not all cultures understand portraiture in the same way—not at all. How to explain the appreciation of asymmetry in Japanese art or the rise of the landscape with its moving point of view in Chinese art? With no examples from other periods or traditions of art, it is hard to understand why he drew the universalist conclusion that he did, when he only connected Viennese art with science.
146 reviews3 followers
August 7, 2013
It took me a while to read this whole book: I had to intersperse it with lighter fare, but it was totally worth the weight of the hardcover book on my chest. The first half of the book was my favorite. In it Kandel narrates the history of the artistic and scientific world in the Vienna of the turn of the 20th century. With his neuroscience background, Kandel tries to explain how our brain respond to visual art, and how great artists have an intuitive understanding of that. Also, during that exciting time, Freud's ideas are becoming more spread and artists and scientists strive to incorporate those ideas into their own work. The second half is more scientific, describing experiments and theories of how vision works and how the brain responds and interprets visual stimulation. A very exciting enlightening book.
18 reviews2 followers
July 27, 2015
One of my favorite books of recent times. Kandel is a neurologist, and a great writer. His neurology books are thus terrific. I was suspicious of this book: a general theory of art and in particular, an analysis of Viennese Expressionism? My suspicion was linked to those artists being some of my favorites ever. Well, it turns out Kandel has an amazingly sensitive eye for art and also avoids any sense of reductionism. He uses Gombrich a lot here. This book is colossal. Brilliant art history, brilliant science and beautiful reproductions. Learned a lot about Klimt, Schiele and Kokoshka.
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59 reviews2 followers
June 18, 2013
Not clear what the point of this book is. The chapters reviewing early Vienna psychologists (Freud) and artists (Klimt, Schiele) are interesting but I find myself asking why? Where is all this going...I think that this is ill-conceived. He is clearly interested in Austrian Art and his intellectual roots in Vienna around 1930s. but, then he tries to realte all this to modern cognitive and neuroscience and the links are either not there or tenuous. So, it all does not seem well motivated or indeed coherent.
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