Nobel Laureate Explores How Art Impacts the Brain

Then Kandel discovered an entirely different way of accessing the world of his childhood. He was fascinated by the main psychological theory and model of the day: psychoanalysis, which, like himself, originally came from Vienna. Kandel eagerly devoured everything that Freud had written about sexual instincts, the unconscious and suppression. With the intent of becoming an analyst himself, he studied medicine, subjected himself to analysis and explored the emotional scars that remained from the time he had spent in Vienna.

Kandel was dissatisfied, though, with this new approach to gaining knowledge. Indeed, he felt that the Freudian model lacked convincing evidence: "Psychoanalysis has a degree of unreliability about it," Kandel argues. "You will never know whether you've found the truth. You may find a subjective truth, but you don't know."

When a career opened up in a neurobiological laboratory, where demonstrable truths were waiting to be discovered, he immediately seized the opportunity. From then on, Kandel stuck electrodes in nerve cells.

His mentor told him he was crazy when he announced that he wanted to find the id and the superego in the cerebral cortex. But he refused to be deterred. He remained convinced that the Freudian entities had to have their biological counterparts somewhere in the network of brain cells. In a sensational essay entitled "Psychotherapy and the Single Synapse," published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1979, Kandel revealed his radical reductionist approach.

The dream of a new form of psychoanalysis based on neurons has never been fulfilled. But Kandel managed to unlock the secret of memory storage. First, he worked with sea slugs, then mice and finally human subjects to prove that there is a biochemical change in the synapses associated with learning processes. In 2000, he was recognized for this discovery and became the second psychiatrist in history to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Yet even for someone like Kandel, the notion of a neuron-based understanding of how we perceive art is a bold vision. "We Jews call it chutzpah," he says with a grin. It must have to do with his age that now, at the end of his career, he's willing to go out on a limb like this. After all, he doesn't have much time left to attempt a great synthesis. "Life is a circle," says Kandel, so he's using this opportunity focus more intensively than ever before on the city of his roots and his lifelong passion for the Vienna Secession group and Expressionists.

Does Neuroscience Enrich Art?

It remains to be seen, however, whether advances in brain research can significantly contribute to our understanding of the artists and their work. Kandel is delighted, for instance, with Klimt's painting of "Judith," who, apparently still glowing with postcoital voluptuousness, is caressing Holofernes' severed head. This shows how female sexuality can be combined with aggression. The painting depicts a woman who triggers equal measures of desire and fear among male viewers -- long before Freud coined the term castration anxiety. But are we aided here by the knowledge that these feelings arise when a region of the brain called the amygdala is activated?

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