From Columbia Magazine:
Many strands of Eric Kandel’s life come together in his latest work, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. The 82-year-old University Professor and co-director of the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative was born in Vienna, where, as a boy of 8, he witnessed the Nazis march into the Austrian capital. Decades later, he recalls how much his own intellectual interests were shaped not only by the Holocaust that followed, but by the cosmopolitan city that in the early 1900 served as an extraordinary incubator for creativity and thought that shaped the world we live in today. From the Modernist painters Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele to the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, a new view emerged of the human mind. Indeed, before Kandel plunged into research on the neurobiology of memory, which would win him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, he had aspired to be a psychoanalyst himself. As he pondered the mission of Columbia’s Mind Brain Behavior Initiative—to connect biomedical sciences with the arts, humanities and social sciences—he came to see that our contemporary understanding of human behavior can be traced directly back to fin de sécle Vienna 1900, particularly in its emphasis on the unconscious and irrational aspects of the human mind.
And it didn’t hurt that he and his wife Denise, who survived the Holocaust as a child in France, have long been art collectors who own small works by Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele, as well as by other German Expressionists. Indeed, Kandel’s 600-page work is dedicated to his wife, a professor of sociomedical sciences in the Department of Psychiatry at the Mailman School of Public Health. “I discuss beauty and I say everyone gets pleasure out of looking at a beautiful face, and I use a photograph of Denise when I first met her,” he says. “I mean she is, and she was, for me remarkably beautiful. And one of the things I enjoyed in our friendship when I first met her is that, in addition to our very wonderful relationship, she was just so pleasant to look at.”
Q. What made you decide to turn your attention to the neurobiology of how we perceive art?
There are many motivating factors. One was my longterm interest in Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele, the three Austrian Modernists, my fascination with Vienna 1900 and with Freud. I wanted to become a psychoanalyst and I’m Viennese so I sense a shared intellectual history, particularly with turn-of-the-century Vienna. But the immediate stimulus actually came from [Columbia President] Lee Bollinger. The idea behind the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative is to try to understand the human mind in biological terms and to use these insights to bridge the biology of the brain with other areas of the humanities. Lee expressed the belief that the new science of the mind could have a major impact on the academic curriculum, that in a sense everyone at the University works on the human mind. I felt I was doing this for personal reasons, but isn’t it wonderful that it is also in line with one of the missions of the University?