Saturday, July 21, 2012

What Lies Beneath

While philosophers and scientists have been trying to unravel the mysteries of the human psyche since time immemorial, the focus has generally been on the conscious mind. It is only over the last couple of centuries or so that the significance of unconscious mental processes began to be truly appreciated. While this revelation has given new directions to neuroscience, medicine, and psychology, its influence extends beyond the frontiers of science. Artists from different schools (mannerism, impressionism, modernism, and expressionism, to name a few) have knowingly or unknowingly exploited the observer's unconscious to create evocative masterpieces. In his book The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel tells an intriguing story about how the unconscious, for the first time, came to be the focal point of a cultural movement in Vienna of the 1900s and provides a scientific treatise on the inner workings of the brain as it creates art or responds to it. What unified the artistic and scientific endeavors of fin de siècle Vienna was the general propensity toward looking beneath the surface for hidden answers and deeper truths, a practice that was to have a long-lasting influence on science and art.

Book review: The Age of Insight by Eric Kandel

The stage for this cultural movement was set by a slow progression of events. As Kandel points out:

The Copernican revolution of the sixteenth century, revealed that the earth is not the center. The Darwinian revolution of the nineteenth century, revealed that we are not created divinely. The Freudian revolution of Vienna 1900, revealed that we do not consciously control our own actions but are instead driven by unconscious motives.

This movement, according to Kandel, had three main characteristics:

  • The new perspective on the human mind was that it is largely irrational by nature. 
  • There was a new openness to self-examination. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, writer Arthur Schnitzler, and modernist painters Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele (recurring characters in this book) were all eager to take a deeper look into people (including themselves) and examine their private inner worlds in search of rules that govern human individuality. 
  • There was a general enterprise toward integrating and unifying knowledge (largely inspired by Darwin's insistence that human beings must be understood biologically in the same way as animals).

The flamboyant cover of this book features a painting by Viennese modernist painter Gustav Klimt. The subject of the painting is Adele Bloch-Bauer, a Viennese socialite and patroness of the arts. In this portrait, Klimt combines flatness with a highly ornamented style creating an appearance akin to that of older Byzantine mosaics, a significant deviation from the reigning Renaissannce style at the time:
Klimt abandons the attempt of painters from the early Renaissance onward to re-create with ever-increasing realism the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas. Like other modern artists faced with the advent of photography, Klimt sought newer truths that could not be captured by the camera.
As in art, the quest for answers that lay deep underneath the surface was preponderant in the medical arena as well. Prior to the 19th century, medical practice was geared toward curing symptoms rather than considering them outward manifestations of underlying diseases that needed curing. It was Viennese physician Carl von Rokitansky who developed the method of autopsy and ensured that every patient who died in the Vienna General Hospital was autopsied. A whopping sixty thousand autopsies were performed under his supervision. Rokitansky, for the first time, "gave medicine a firm scientific basis by introducing correlations between symptoms and the diseases that cause them." Interestingly, Klimt would watch frequent anatomist Emil Zuckerkandl dissect cadavers, a process that helped him understand the human body better and render it more convincingly in his paintings.

Fin de siècle Vienna also witnessed the emergence of psychoanalysis practiced by its founding father, Sigmund Freud. By today, a number of Freud's theories have been proven wrong. This is because psychoanalysis "was not empirical and was therefore not amenable to experimental testing." However, Kandel points out that several of Freud's ideas have in fact stood up well. One such idea is that most of our mental life, including most of our emotional life, is unconscious. Another one of his ideas is that the instincts for aggressive and for sexual strivings, like the instincts to eat and to drink, are built into the human psyche. Finally, he also correctly envisioned mental illnesses to often represent exaggerated forms of normal mental processes.

What I described so far is just the tip of the iceberg. The book provides an intensive treatise on the biology of our visual and emotional perception of art. As we know, the images that form on our retinas and our visual perception of them tend to be very different. What we perceive is the result of several low-, intermediate-, and high-level visual processing steps, which are largely unconscious. Low-level visual processing examines basic characteristics of a visual scene by ascertaining the position or colors of objects therein. Intermediate-level visual processing extracts object boundaries and separates them from the background. High-level visual processing enables us to identify specific objects, faces, and scenes by testing hypotheses (based on prior experiences) on a given visual data set. To illustrate the perceptual consequences of specific visual processing steps, Kandel uses an abundance of graphic examples, including optical illusions such as the Rubin vase, the Kanizsa triangle, or the duck-rabbit, and ambiguities in famous paintings, such as Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile. The reason the visual details matter so much is that they can be cleverly employed by the artist to channel our attentional resources to the specific aspect which the artist wants us to focus on.

Our emotional reception of art is a complex chemical ballgame. However our reaction to a work of art is typically more complex than the emotional primitives of happiness, fear, surprise, disgust, sadness, and anger. As Kandel explains:
Aesthetic pleasure is not an elementary sensation like the feeling of hot or cold, or the taste of bitter or sweet. Instead, it represents a higher-order evaluation of sensory information processed along specialized pathways in the brain that estimate the potential for reward from a stimulus in the environment - in this case, from the work of art that we view.
Facial expressions in art can have a deep impact on the beholder's evaluation of beauty. Viennese modernists would often try to depict in their painting the inner world of the subject. Kokoschka would frequently employ caricature to amplify specific emotional reactions to a painting. An eerie instance of the artist's insight into the subject is exemplified by Kokoschka's painting of Auguste Forel in which Forel's face were contorted like he were having a stroke. 
Kokoschka privately agreed that the painting depicted Forel as if he had suffered a stroke. Two years later, while bending over his microscope, Forel had a stroke that affected his right face and arm exactly as Kokoschka had painted them. Whether the painting reflects a purely accidental depiction by Kokoschka of Forel's impending stroke, or whether the artist's eye for detail and his sense of the physical and psychic attributes of his subject enabled him to spot a transient ischemic episode, the precursor signs of stroke, is not clear.
The last section of the book discusses the biological basis of creativity and suggests that the ability to tell stories around a fire or paint on cave walls is what might have enabled our cavemen ancestors to creatively solve problems and get selected by nature while their distant relatives the Neanderthals got wiped out. Creativity in itself is a largely unconscious process.
Unconscious mental processes are characterized by primary-process thinking. Such thinking is analogical, freely associative, characterized by concrete images (as opposed to abstract concepts), and guided by the pleasure principle. Conscious mental processes, in contrast, are governed by secondary-process thinking, which is abstract, logical, and guided by reality-oriented concerns. Because primary-process thinking is freer and hyper-associative, it is thought to facilitate the emergence of moments of creativity that promote new combinations and permutations of ideas - the equivalent of an Aha!
In the closing chapter, Kandel revisits the idea of heightening the dialogue between art and science, a compelling thought he introduced at the start of his book. According to him, "brain science and art represent two distinct perspectives on mind." He identifies an intrinsic similarity between the two disciplines in that both use a reductionist approach and emphasizes that both sides have something to gain from this communication. His book, which is an exhilaratingly insightful journey through both art and science, is in itself a brilliant foundational initiative to such a dialogue. It is aesthetically appealing and yet scientifically rigorous. In fact, it is simultaneously a book of science and a work of art!

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