Nobel Laureate Explores How Art Impacts the Brain

Indeed, buried deep in his own soul is the memory of that autumn in 1938, when his parents gave him a shiny blue battery-driven toy car for his birthday. He still sees himself -- how he was so absorbed in steering it throughout the apartment. In his next memory, he is startled by a loud banging on the door. Even today, Kandel says the sound still echoes in his ears.

The Kandels were Jews, and they had to leave their apartment. It was "Kristallnacht," the so-called "Night of Broken Glass" pogrom of Nov. 9, 1938, in which Nazis launched coordinated attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses in Germany and Austria. How could the 9-year-old Eric comprehend this? When the family returned to their ravaged apartment several days later, the blue car was gone.

His entire fascination with the dark side of the soul, his interest in psychoanalysis, memory and neuroscience, says Kandel, dates back to the last year that he spent in Vienna before he emigrated to the United States. He is also left with his bitter recollections of this city, where he first encountered the evil and brutality in mankind.

It is only now, at the age of 82, that Kandel is making peace with his native city. He says that writing this book was deeply therapeutic for him on a personal level. It helped him come to terms with the trauma of being driven from his home. Brave New World of Neuroaesthetics

And yet "The Age of Insight" is so much more: In addition to making amends with his homeland, Kandel uses this as an opportunity to launch a bold project. His late work can be read as a manifesto for a new branch of science: neuroaesthetics. Kandel says that it's time to use the tools of his field -- neuroscience -- to unravel the mystery of human creativity, the enigmatic impact of art and the dark depths of the unconscious mind. His goal is to draw a connection between our emotional reaction to a Klimt or Schiele portrait and the electrical flickers of individual neurons.

We still have only a vague idea of what the budding field of neuroaesthetics can explain here. Kandel readily admits that what he sketches in his book is "merely a beginning." But he says that he loves to stand at the beginning and take the first step in a field of knowledge and explore what might be worth pursuing.

And who would be more eminently qualified to tackle such an ambitious project than Kandel himself? He has already founded an entire field of research and explored higher mental functions down to the molecular level. He uncovered the mystery of memory by proving that recollections are burned into the contact points of the nerve cells, the synapses.

Kandel's attempt to grasp the secret of the phenomenon of learning and remembering led to a career that exemplifies the scientific process of discovery: Step by step, the researcher proceeded from dealing with his own memory to deciphering memory storage in neurons.

When he attended university, he initially selected the obvious way of coming to terms with the historical experiences of his childhood. He studied history and focused on Kurt Schuschnigg, the chancellor who led Austria's Austro-fascist regime before the Nazis marched into the country. Discovery and Disappointment with Psychoanalysis

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