Monday, June 05, 2017

Eric Kandel’s Reductionism in Art and Brain Science – Bridging the Two Cultures

By: Ed Bilsky, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: Reductive art is a term to describe an artistic style or an aesthetic, rather than an art movement. It is stripping down as a new way of seeing. Movements and other terms that are sometimes associated with reductive art include abstract art, minimalism, ABC art, anti-illusionism, cool art, and rejective art. Eric Kandel’s fifth book focuses on reductionism as the principle guiding an ongoing dialogue between the worlds of science and art.



W hile attending the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting this past fall, I came across advertisements for the release of Reductionism in Art and Brain Science – Bridging the Two Cultures and the opportunity to have it signed by the author, Eric Kandel. Arriving in Publisher’s row, I stood in a long line, a testament to the reverence the neuroscience community has for the Nobel laureate. By the time I got to the booth, the publisher was down to its last two copies, leaving many disappointed fans behind me.

Months passed before I carved out the time to read it. Not surprisingly, I was soon engrossed; Kandel is known for clearly communicating complex concepts, whether in a definitive neuroscience textbook (Principles of Neural Sciences) or wide-ranging forays into the interface of science, art, and culture (Age of Insight). Reductionism In Art And Brain Science, while more compact, is no less ambitious. Helping draw the reader in is the quality of the printing. The book has a solid feel and the pages are on high quality paper appropriate for the stunning images Kandel selects to help tell his story.

Coming into his narrative, I had a solid grasp of the neural principles of the visual system, learning and memory, and cognitive processing. I was, however, a near-neophyte when it came to art and art history. The author elaborates (or should I say reduces?) the relationship between how the human nervous system processes and perceives the visual world, while also highlighting the dramatic changes taking place in the world of art that began in the 19th century and continues today.

Kandel believes that photography was a disruptive innovation that threatened the realists who had developed extraordinary techniques to evoke in intricate detail a three-dimensional landscape or portrait on a two-dimensional canvas. The artistic response evolved rapidly, even within the lifetime of artists who adapted their styles to meet the challenge. The choice of art featured in each chapter complements Kandel’s clarity of writing and crystalizes the points he is attempting to make.

Joseph Mallord William Turner’s seascapes from 1803 and 1842 exemplify the origins of this perspective, illustrating some of the first attempts to replace detail with elements of abstraction to create even more evocative works of art. Another great set of illustrations features works of Austrian composer and music theorist Arnold Schoenberg as his approach to portraits evolves in the span of a single year.

One of the most satisfying parts of the book is the discussion of bottom-up and top-down processing of information by the nervous system. The evolution of visual systems that allow organisms as simple as insects and as complex as human beings to interact effectively with a dynamic, fast changing three-dimensional world in real-time is simply astonishing. The near “hard wired in” systems that enable scanning an open field and tree line for predators and prey, or recognizing faces and facial expressions in one’s tribe or village, are crucial for survival. But as cortical regions developed and became more complex, the brain was also evolving the capacity to be curious, solve puzzles, and fill in the blanks when presented with incomplete information. 

When confronting an abstract piece of art, the viewer’s nervous system is challenged to function in a novel way—to scan and assimilate visual information that does not add up to the kind of representational image it evolved to interpret, and to understand this information through one’s own lens and unique framework. This can certainly be frustrating— seemingly impossible, even—with some pieces of art, but as in many other situations, the nervous system can learn with repeated exposure and benefit from the mentorship of one who is more experienced. Kandel is extremely adept at explaining what seem unlikely connections—between discoveries in our understanding of the nervous system and how we perceive and react to our surroundings, and how artists were adapting and evolving to engage audiences in new and provocative ways.

The utility of reductionist approaches to both neural sciences and to the creation of visual art is well documented as the reader works through each chapter. Kandel draws on his own research using simpler systems in which to study fundamental processes of learning and memory, allowing for eventual reconstruction into complex systems of human cognition in both health and disease. On the artistic side, the creation of abstraction—breaking the visual world into its basic elements of line, light, form, and color—is discussed and fully illustrated. The cover art by Mark Rothko is just one example of this component.

That Kandel’s book made me a more open-minded and curious viewer of art became apparent shortly afterwards, when I visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. with my teenage children. I sought out specific pieces in the collection and spent more time with those pieces than I would have otherwise. The adventure was enhanced by listening to my kids’ comments and observing their level of engagement and patience in each section of the museum. I did my best to explain some of the historical context and interpretation I had gleaned from the book and apply them to the exhibits. 

A good book is memorable while a great book makes you think differently about a topic and perhaps change a behavior or apply what you have learned to a new challenge. I found myself excited to engage with both fellow neuroscientists and artists within the university faculty—thanks, in part, to my newfound enthusiasm for the topic and for sharing the experience of reading the book.

But another question has developed over the past few months, as I have gone back to reread sections of the book and view and revisit more of the artwork. It crystalized in a discussion with scientific colleagues. What value do members of the lay public perceive in a reductionist’s understanding of learning and memory when a parent has dementia? How is that piece of abstract art going to help me afford college for my child or enhance his or her education? 

One response is to offer a foothold for understanding science and the arts to a broader swath of the public. As people experience new things and gain confident familiarity with the topics they represent, this enhances rather than stifles their curiosity. Inviting people into these fascinating fields and giving them a sense of how they bleed together to spark innovation and address complex problems is another of the book’s significant contributions.  

We desperately need more authors like Kandel—thinkers who can master a discipline, move comfortably between the arts, sciences, and cultures, and communicate effectively with the public. We need scientists, artists, and scholars willing to engage with people without college degrees, children in diverse school systems, and policy makers who all too often hold too narrow a view of the world. Kandel has done a masterful job in “bridging the two cultures” of art and science through a reductionist approach. He also opens the door for us to build back up to the level of the individual, the family, and, the community. This may in fact be a viable approach in which to form new bridges across cultures that are isolated and deeply divided. These are doors we need to enter, and through his writing, Kandel demonstrates how science and art can be catalysts for positive change.


About Cerebrum

Bill Glovin, Editor in Chief
Carolyn Asbury, Ph.D., consultant

Scientific Advisory Board

• Joe Coyle, the Eben S. Draper Chair of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School; director of the Laboratory for Psychiatric and Molecular Neuroscience; former editor of JAMA Psychiatry

• Martha Farah, Annenberg Professor in Natural Sciences, professor of psychology, and director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania

• Pierre Magistretti, professor in the Brain Mind Institute, EPFL, Center for Psychiatric Neuroscience, Department of Psychiatry - CHUV/UNIL, Switzerland

• Helen Mayberg, director of Center for Advanced Circuit Therapeutics for the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

• Bruce McEwen, Alfred E. Mirsky Professor; head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch, Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at the Rockefeller University

• John H. Morrison, director of the California National Primate Research Center and professor in the Department of Neurology, School of Medicine, UC Davis

• Harald Sontheimer, I. D. Wilson Chair and professor and executive director, Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, Commonwealth Eminent Scholar in Cancer Research, and director of the Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease & Cancer, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

• Stephen Waxman, founding director of Yale University’s Neuroscience & Regeneration Research Center and the Flaherty Professor of Neurology, Neurobiology, and Pharmacology

• Chuck Zorumski, Samuel B. Guze Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Neurobiology, department head, psychiatry director of the Taylor Family Institute for Innovative Psychiatric Research and Cynthia S. Smith, M.B.A., executive director of the Department of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine

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