Nobel Laureate Explores How Art Impacts the Brain

When examining Kokoschka's double portrait "Die Windsbraut" ("The Bride of the Wind"), Kandel is particularly fascinated by the way the painter uses colors to penetrate the emotional world of those portrayed. In the painting, Kokoschka depicts himself lying with his lover on a boat surrounded by stormy seas. Alma Mahler, with whom Kokoschka had a passionate affair at the time, is painted in green earthy tones, and apparently calmly sleeping. By contrast, Kokoschka is rendered in redder, thickly applied paint. He is awake and nervous, and seems to be deeply disturbed by the emotional turmoil of their liaison. Here, too, one questions whether it is helpful to know how these colors are processed by the visual cortex in the occipital lobe.

On the other hand, in Egon Schiele's "Tod und Mädchen" ("Death and the Maiden"), Kandel interprets a sense of isolation and desperation as the artist depicts himself in a comparable situation. Schiele, shown here as the messenger of death, has just ended his relationship with his girlfriend, Wally, because although she is a good lover he doesn't think she would make a good wife. They are shown in a final embrace on a rumpled sheet, where they have just had sex. While their bodies are still locked in an embrace, Kandel notes they are already staring past each other into space. But isn't the emptiness of these stares also effective without the insight that a humiliating rejection activates the brain's dopamine system? Potential for More Research

Kandel, at least, says he is convinced that neurobiology can enrich our understanding of artistic creativity. He even points out a number of fascinating findings made by his colleagues.

Neuroscientists have been able to prove that sudden inspirations and insights are accompanied by characteristic, high-frequency brain waves in the right temporal lobe. There is additional evidence that indicates that the right frontal brain lobe plays a key role in the creative process, while the left frontal brain lobe actually impedes such activity.

This is supported by case studies of patients who have suffered trauma to the left sides of the brains. A 51-year-old housewife, for example, suddenly began to paint landscapes that she recalled from her childhood. A 56-year-old businessman dedicated himself so enthusiastically to painting that he won numerous awards.

Kandel admits that, at best, such findings give us only a vague sense of what can be achieved with experimentally well-founded neuroaesthetics someday in the future.

But perhaps, he adds, there is already a young researcher working in one of the world's laboratories who is determined to unravel the mystery of creativity -- just as Kandel set off half a century ago in search of the secret of human memory.

And Kandel hopes that his book will provide this intrepid researcher with food for thought. Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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