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Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  443 ratings  ·  65 reviews
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published August 30th 2016 by Columbia University Press (first published 2016)
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Apr 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017-reads
Clearly written introduction and elegant survey. I needed to get past my knee-jerk reaction to the term reductionism - a dirty word when I was taking anthropology classes in the early 90s (and which I was probably combining/confusing with positivism). I could more readily accept the idea of reductionism in art (as stripping away to reveal a new way of seeing) than in science, where my old biases linger. But I came to understand that Kandel is talking about reductionism as a tool, and course, we ...more
Dan Graser
Oct 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
In Nobel Prize-winning Columbia Professor Eric Kandel's latest work, he offers an introduction to the idea that the study and practice of Reductionism in modern (visual) art and brain science offers great benefit to both disciplines when treated as two sides of the same coin. He eloquently sums this idea up early on: "Appreciating the reductionist methods used by artists in no wary diminishes the richness or complexity of our response to art. In fact, the artists I consider in this book have use ...more
Rachel Spivey
Feb 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As a self proclaimed hater of modern art and abstraction, this book did make me rethink WHY these works can be considered art. Kandel does an excellent job of dumbing down neuroscience for the casual consumer, and his connections with artists ranging from Jackson Pollock to Chuck Close make sense. The neuroscience behind our vision and how we process what we see provides fascinating context for what might otherwise be considered (by me, the abstract art hater) "nonsense artworks".
Mason Neil
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pretty similar in content to Age of Insight, but a bit more concise and focused on abstract expressionism rather than modernism. I did feel it was a bit rushed and less thorough than AoI, and sometimes that came at the cost of cohesiveness, but if you prefer a fast-paced read this would be more your style. Endlessly fascinating and a lot of fun.
Glad I read it. A good, clear and concise synthesis of research in brain science related to visual art. Art people might be irritated by some things: the cursory treatment of art historians and critics, the absence of female artists, the triumphalist modernist narrative, and inattention to traditional formalist evaluations of abstraction.
Nov 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: top-20
This book (i) compares reductionist approaches in art and science, (ii) gives an overview of the most influential artists and their work when abstractionism reached its historical climax (and addresses the impact of historical events like the publication of Einstein's relativity theory), (iii) teaches us how the brain processes different visual stimuli and why abstract art is special to the brain.

(i) Reductionism = focussing on the essential elements: in science that means designing and testing
Kunal Sen
Sep 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Scientific books that talk about art are rare, and the few that I have come across generally deal with certain simple forms of visual art. This was one of the very rare exception, and unsurprisingly it comes from Eric Kandel, the Nobel Prize winning scientist known for his groundbreaking research in the neuroscience of learning and memory. What makes this book unique is that it lays out a neuroscientific basis for why people enjoy not only figurative art, but the appeal of abstract art. The auth ...more
Augustya Shrivastava
I had a mental orgasm reading this because the book combined Art history, Psychology, Neurosciences and Physics, which are my most favourite things ever to read about. Possibly the best thing I came across this year so far.
Mad Hab
Jan 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I started reading the booking hoping to learn to appreciate modern/abstract art. I still have some problems with that, but the way I was thinking about abstract art is changed forever.
Apr 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is why I'm a neuroscientist but I'm hardly a Kandel! He is brilliant in the way I know his academic work and this book displays his genius beyond his academic content. Few people can so eloquently discuss two diverse content areas and he does it without a hint of arrogance or pomposity. He explained abstract expressionism in terms of neuroscience that contributed to the beauty of the art. He set out to bring together art and science using reductionism. Whereas in science we use it "to expla ...more
Jim Angstadt
Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures
Eric R. Kandel

One might wonder about the concept of reductionism. What is it? How can it apply to the two apparently very different domains of art and brain science?

In a very readable way, with lots of examples and graphics, Kandel alternates between art and brain science to explain reductionism.

What is the smallest, least complicated, living organism that one can study to understand brain function. Reduce the complexity to the poin
Nov 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The book is divided into four parts, where Kandel explores the reductionist approach to both brain science and art and the emerging dialogue between the two. As any well-written interdisciplinary book, Kandel's work brings beautiful insights to the table and leaves the reader with a sense of admiration about many more connections that are yet to be found between the science and abstract art.
As Kandel explains through a number of experiments and scientific facts, the brain processes color separa
Jan 29, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Eric Kandel deftly crafts this book in the same way Abstract Art utilizes reductionism.

Kandel brings science and art theory down to the (approximate?) level of the average reader. In making these topics accessible, Kandel successfully "reduces" both subjects to a challenging but understandable level. He devotes equal time to both art and science, and both describes and questions how they intersect. While it irked me that Kandel didn't include Rosalind Franklin in his description of DNA discover
Ignacio Luna
An orthodox approach to both art history and neuroscience, and the two sections never seem to connect as well as I'd hope from a book trying to bridge the two cultures. The whole thing seems to just rest on the fact that top down processing is involved in viewing abstract art as opposed to bottom up in figurative art. Altogether, a little too light and disconnected. Sort of feels like an ophthalmologist trying to connect art to science by revealing that art is seen through the eye. It's not wron ...more
Akanksha Chauhan
Coming from a humanities background, part 1 & 2 did not captivate me as much as Kandel traversed the physiology of the human brain. Had to frequently go back and reread to recall the more scientific terms. Part 3 onwards the book was absolutely riveting as he begins dissecting the evolution of abstraction through various periods of art. Especially loved his critique of De Kooning's work. Tbh it kept getting better and better. I strongly urge you not to give up on this book after the first couple ...more
Inhye Baik
Feb 03, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
Reads like a liberal arts student's senior thesis paper, Essays in [my first major my parents wanted me to study] and [my secondary major that I actually like] (I am entirely projecting here hahaha). If you're new to neuroscience or art topics, this book has more potential for awe. Otherwise, I'm going to be critical.

Organizationally, this book is part neuroscience and part art theory/history/criticism, but structured in a discordant way. It switches jarringly between sections of fully just
Iver Band
As a general reader without a formal background in either brain science or visual art, I learned a great deal about both subjects, and how they relate to each other. The book is clearly and concisely written, and beautifully illustrated.

On the other hand, I found that two shortcomings limited the book's impact. First of all, Kandel often alternates between research-based discussion of brain structure and function, and subjective statements about the experience and meaning of individual artworks
May 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Art & Neuroscience Lovers
An extraordinarily incisive introduction to the intersecting relationships between art and neuroscience. Eric Kandel provides all the tools by giving a thorough and even-handed crash-course in art history and how these artists impacted painting, and how those paintings affect the brain.

Major bonus points for not shying away from anatomy for greater precision, and for expressing such elegance and richly complex topics in a surprisingly approachable and completely non-pretentious way. In fact, the
David Rubenstein
I wanted to like this book. It promised to explain how brain functions relate to appreciation of modern art. In a sense it did so, in that it suggested a pathway between art without figuration and its perceptions in the brain. What I wanted was to understand the value of modern art.

The book describes top-down appreciation of art, in which the figures relate to things in our memories, and bottom-up experience of art, in which lines, or colors, or forms are recognized by the most primitive recepto
Mar 20, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition

The book is informative, but a bit dry. I was expecting a bit more of a back and forth between neuroscience and art, but the focus was more on art. Reductionism in art was discussed a lot with the progression of art from complex realism to more abstract forms. He looked a lot at both the changes in techniques and practices of making art as well the evolution of art from the perspective of the viewer. The discussion of neuroscience included introductions about visual processing and how the evo
Payel Kundu
Dec 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As a neuroscientist and an artist, this book appealed to me in multiple ways. Kandel is one of the most famous neuroscientists ever, but I had no idea he had such a deep interest in art. This book completely changed my appreciation of abstract art, it was like a powerful stroke of insight. Not only does it make me appreciate and understand abstract art much better, it has changed how I approach stimulating my own creativity when I’m feeling stuck in my painting. It has changed how I paint as wel ...more
Jul 11, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
- the aesthetic experience can be explained by the composition of the brain/eyes + the experience of the observer
- abstract paintings are difficult to understand because the brain is looking for associations and past experiences; sometimes there's nothing to understand because the painter doesn't want to convey a meaning (Pollock's dripping paintings)
- action paintings
- in order to understand abstract paintings, it's useful to know the context of the time + the painter's manifesto
- what to look
I really enjoyed this (especially more toward the end), and Eric Kandel is amazing. I heard him talk at ANFA once (a similar discussion but possibly more related to his other book Age of Insight, which I haven't read yet) and it was awesome:

Editing wise.... a few things bugged me about this consistently. For example, the book uses the word "pure" over and over, e.g. "pure color" and I found myself having a problem with it (e.g. in a work of art referred t
Jul 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Abstract art engages the beholder by heavily activating higher order mental functions such as imagery, expectations, and associations to digest sensorial ambiguity and perceptual ambivalence, and so evoke emotive meaning. Works by Mondrian, de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Dan Flavin, and others are used to illustrate how forms and colours are deconstructed and distilled, while the underpinning neuroscience is described. Concepts such as pareidolia, apophenia, and mental construal are highlighted. T ...more
Lola Lozano
Aug 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is by far one of my favorites. As a science-nerd, I read a lot of non-fiction yet have a deep appreciation for art history. Therefore I jumped at the opportunity to read a book on the amalgamation of these two topics by one of the legendary leaders within my field of study, neuroscience. This book is a work of art in and of itself- in its design and presentation with large beautiful pages and illustrations and Kandel's easy to understand explanations. A wonderful introduction to unders ...more
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Another book combining Art and Brain science. Starting with the trend in art toward more abstraction and breaking down the canvass of a painting to colored elements and the relationships between them and moving away from realism mirrors the reductionist tendency to break things down to smaller components and rebuilding them into something new. The same with the study of the mind. Localizing neuroanatomy and breaking down components of brain processing in an attempt to build back to the whole ag ...more
Zac Sigler
Aug 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art
This is a masterpiece! (pun intended). Having watched Eric Kandel on television, I was thrilled that his voice came through very clearly in this book. The book includes equal parts psychological and artistic theory. My estimation is that I was familiar with 75% of the artists named in the book and that I was familiar with 100% of the psychological concepts discussed, though it had been a few years since I'd flexed those particular "muscles." This would be a great book for a fan of abstract art a ...more
Angel Wu
Jun 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful introduction

This book is inspiring in the sense that it introduces how the biological basis (the human brain) can be applied into the explanation of aesthetic experience. I particularly like the way it explains the aesthetic value of abstract art, which echoes with my own experience. Though further researches are undoubtedly needed to validate and enrich many of its descriptions, this volumes has pointed a promising direction for both the appreciation of the audience and the explorat
Matthew Trevithick
4.5 Stars - beautiful and elegant book that masterfully weaves a story between Abstract Expressionism and Brain Science, particularly memory and it’s role in everything. The subject material is so complex and this book could’ve gone wrong in so many places, but the author - writing at the height of his powers in his late 80s - gracefully moves through the material. The balance between appropriate detail and appropriate generalization is testament to the decades of thought that have gone into thi ...more
Rujuta Pradhan
Dec 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An excellent piece of work authored by a pioneer! The book juxtaposes and interweaves two fields; art and neuroscience of vision and how principles and knowledge of the two may compound to understand how humans perceive their environment and reconstruct it. A remarkable feature is Kandel's manner of writing, simplistic and yet rich in content. An ancillary advantage of reading this book is understanding the way to convey scientific information cohesively and convincingly.
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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 Physic

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49 likes · 11 comments
“This reductionist vision is reflected in the evolution of his work. Perhaps Mondrian also implicitly realized that by excluding certain angles and focusing only on others he might pique the beholder’s curiosity and imagination about the omissions.” 3 likes
“My central premise is that although the reductionist approaches of scientists and artists are not identical in their aims—scientists use reductionism to solve a complex problem and artists use it to elicit a new perceptual and emotional response in the beholder—they are analogous. For example,” 2 likes
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