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Book Reviews   |    
The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present

by Eric R. Kandel; New York, Random House, 2012, 636 pages, $40

Reviewed by Robert Feder, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2012; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.631002
View Author and Article Information

Dr. Feder is a psychiatrist in private practice in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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Author Eric Kandel, the recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is known for his ability to explain complex ideas in very understandable and entertaining terms. He undertakes this task once again in The Age of Insight, subtitled in part The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain. Dr. Kandel’s expertise in neurophysiology, psychoanalysis, and psychiatry is well known, and his knowledge in the area of art history is revealed here for the first time to a wide audience.

The first major part of the book takes the reader to Vienna circa 1900, where radical changes in the fields of music (Gustav Mahler), literature (Arthur Schnitzler), and especially art (Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele) were paralleling the emergence of the field of psychoanalysis in the work of Sigmund Freud. Kandel describes the efforts in the arts to go beneath surface appearances to reveal the unconscious, sexual, and aggressive aspects of the human experience, just as Freud was describing these same processes in his early psychoanalytic papers. Kandel goes into great detail examining the evolution of the work of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. Many reproductions of the works of these masters are included, which are printed in rich detail and faithful coloration. This first section of the book is most reflective of its title; the remainder of the book deals with the neurophysiology of the brain and its relationship to visual art. Those who are primarily interested in art, history, and psychoanalysis can stop after reading the first part (a fulfilling 181 pages); those who are also interested in brain physiology will be rewarded by further reading.

Part 2 of the book is a brief description of Gestalt psychology and its relationship to how we see art. Kandel also introduces us to Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, two Viennese art historians who brought the field of psychology into art history and art appreciation and to whom Kandel refers frequently throughout the book.

The third part of The Age of Insight deals with the neurophysiology of perception. The work of Hubel and Weisel on the primary visual cortex and that of Kobatake and Tanaka on facial recognition, among others, are described in detail. Kandel then attempts to apply this knowledge to an analysis of how Schiele and Kokoschka capture the viewer by their depictions of faces and hands. Here Kandel is taking a big theoretical leap and is on somewhat shaky ground.

Part 4 of the book is a wonderful synthesis of a wide range of recent functional imaging studies that attempt to elucidate how the cerebral cortex integrates various brain functions to produce perception, emotion, volition, and a sense of self. This is the section of the book that neuroscientists will most enjoy, in that it brings a huge amount of disparate research into a coherent, meaningful whole in a way that few besides Kandel can. To remain consistent with the overall theme of the book, Kandel attempts to connect these issues to an understanding of art, but as in part 3, he is not fully convincing when trying to bridge the large gap between art and physiology.

In the fifth and final section of the book Kandel reviews another large area of research, that dealing with unconscious tasks and decision making. He uses this to show just how much of what we think and do really is unconscious (although in ways somewhat different from what Freud described). Kandel then goes on to discuss the nature of creativity in general and how unconscious processes may play a key role. Although this section is even more speculative than parts 3 and 4 of the book, Kandel is more persuasive here.

The index of the book is extensive and useful. The references (over 70 pages) are exhaustive for anyone wishing to consult original sources. However, references are not made in scientific journal style, but rather in popular nonfiction format. Unfortunately, museum locations of the original artworks reproduced in the book are not given.

This is a huge book, all of which may not be for everyone. Those who persevere through it, however, will be rewarded by Kandel’s numerous fascinating insights into both mind and art.

The reviewer reports no competing interests.

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