New York Blog

Between Science and Art: An evening with Eric Kandel and Alan Alda

What happens when science and art get together?

That was the subject of last Thursday’s discussion with Nobel laureate Eric Kandel and Emmy award winner Alan Alda. Like any good scientist, Kandel took this very broad, overarching question and reduced it to something more manageable by focusing on a specific time, place, and group of people. For Kandel, this meant concentrating on a particular group of impressionist painters in Vienna in 1900.

Kandel described a moment in time when science and art were very much entwined. The mood in twentieth century Vienna reflected a response to the Enlightenment and the notion that humans are special among all animals because of their ability for logical, rational thought. Instead, physicians and scientists like Rokitansky and Freud were revealing that, biologically, humans are not all that special from animals and that there is a quite irrational side to humanity.

These ideas were able to better take hold due to the back and forth between scientists and artists of the day. Scientists and artists ran in similar social circles, attended salons together (the most famous of which was the salon of Berta Zuckerkandl), and learned from each other. A look at the dress of the woman in the famous painting “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt reveals Klimt’s interest in the slides of cells that Emil Zuckerkandl, an anatomist, would bring to his wife’s salons.

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908

Both groups were interested in looking below the surface to understand how the mind works, to understand the unconscious. The artists that Kandel focused on (Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele) were interested in conveying and evoking emotion in their subjects and in their audience not by providing a realist interpretation, but by exaggerating and distorting. As it turns out, exaggeration is a very effective means to evoke emotion in the viewer. According to Kandel, an exaggerated or distorted facial expression causes the nerve cells in our brain to respond more strongly.

Self portrait by Egon Schiele, 1912

Our brains are adept at filling in the blanks, at looking at an image and making up an experience or emotion to accompany it. In many ways, Kandel explains, our brain does something quite similar in our day-to-day lives, relying on a limited amount of incoming information and a lifetime of stored memories to create our perception of our surroundings.

How do science and art interact today? What are the modern-day versions of the Viennese salons?

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite xkcd comics. Perhaps science and art aren’t that different after all.



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