Book Review: Eric R. Kandel's The Age of Insight

In The Age of Insight, a polymath Nobel laureate presents a masterful synthesis of psychology, neuroscience and art, and a love letter to the Vienna that was, and is, defining the world today

TVR Books | Roxanne Powell | Vienna 1900

The “heroes” (from l.) Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Arthur Schnitzler, Oskar Kokoschka (Illustration: K. Klein)

Nectar for the Mind

Eric Kandel’s elder brother had just finished building his first short-wave radio receiver on 13 March 1938 "as the broadcaster described the earlier crossing of the Austrian border by German troops" reaching Vienna the following afternoon. "And for days on end, all hell broke loose. Viennese mobs erupted in nationalistic fervor, expressed by beating up Jews and destroying their property." One eyewitness, the German playwright Carl Zuckmayer, compared this to a "nightmare painting of Hieronymus Bosch."

Only one year later, in March 1939, Eric (9) and Ludwig (14) would start a new life in New York City, with their parents following soon after. While they escaped with comparatively minor persecution, the experience was traumatic:

"I am struck", Kandel writes today, "by how deeply these traumatic events of my childhood became burned into memory." These painful recollections of the Anschluss and Reichskristallnacht kindled his "interests in the biology of conscious and unconscious memory".


Molecular neural science

After such inauspicious beginnings, he went on to lead a charmed life in world-class medical research, becoming professor at Columbia University and pioneering a new scientific approach to the molecular mechanisms of memory storage that won him the Nobel Prize in 2000.

In his previous book, In Search of Memory (2006), part memoir and part textbook, Kandel traces the origins of his interest for the biology of mind to a deep need to understand human behaviour, rooted in his last year in Vienna. In The Age of Insight – The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, the courtly elder-statesman of science focuses on the best of humankind: cutting-edge science, artistic creation and its enjoyment.

Although Kandel has never moved back to Vienna, this mammoth book does just that, reclaiming Vienna, "still intellectually vibrant, one of the great cultural centers of the world", which he all too briefly knew and short-hands as "Vienna 1900".


The inward turn

The book’s title refers to the major insight of Freud and other Viennese modernists: the "irrationality of everyday life." The new motto was: "only by going below surface appearances can we find reality" – in contrast to photography, a brand new media that showed the surface of reality more faithfully than any painting could hope for.

Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele and Schnitzler are the artistic heroes of this new enquiry, and Carl von Rokitansky, founder of the Second Vienna School of Medicine (1840s), its first scientific hero. As Professor for Anatomical Pathology at the Univeristy of Vienna, he and his associates performed some 60,000 autopsies during his career – every patient who died at the General Hospital underwent this – correlating his findings with those of the physician in charge.

It was only one step from looking under the skin to looking under the skull. Theodor Meynert, chairman of the university’s Department of Psychiatry, carried out post-mortem examinations of the brain, while his successor, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, published the still classic Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), bringing sexuality into academic discourse.

This set the scene for Freud’s intellectual journey which, Kandel argues, was a pure product of Vienna’s School of Medicine: he and fellow researcher Josef Breuer looked below so-called hysterical symptoms to find "mental events submerged in the patient’s past." Leading artists and philosophers were also influenced by this research, thanks to the intellectual melting-pot provided by the university, coffee-houses and private salons in fin-de-siècle Vienna, and found their way into the "private theater of another’s mind".


An end to the Age of Reason

Hence, Vienna 1900 undermined the core assumption of the Enlightenment (humans are rational creatures) using the very tools of reason. Today’s neuroscientists and psychologists continue to reveal the powers of the unconscious in shaping our behaviour and empowering our imagination. Thus creative people can undergo voluntary, temporary regression, with relatively free flow between their unconscious and conscious selves; this is similar to regression to primitive functioning in psychotic episodes which, however, are uncontrolled.

In the decades since, much has changed: We now know that the language of the unconscious is analogical, freely associative, based on concrete images (no abstract concepts) and is guided by the pleasure principle (not reality-oriented). Moreover, the idea that reason and emotion are in opposition to each other has given way to the realisation that "emotion and cognition work together."


A master of complexity

Throughout the book, Kandel shows how the human brain handles incredibly varied and complex tasks, such as seeing and remembering, most of it at the unconscious level. Indeed consciousness has been defined as "the momentary, active, subjective experience of working memory", a working memory for a single event lasting only 16 to 30 seconds.

This is because we can only pay attention to a rather limited number of things at a time, whereas unconscious mental processes, whether sensory or emotional, can deal with several items simultaneously in an orderly and coherent fashion.

Indeed the brain is a "creativity machine", seeking patterns amid chaos and ambiguity, constantly constructing models of the complex, and changing reality around us.


Sea slugs and angular nudes

A brain scientist who once trained to become a psychoanalyst – Freud’s trajectory in reverse – Kandel is an avid collector of Austrian and German Expressionist Art which, he surmises is "an attempt to recapture a part of [his] hopelessly lost youth." He feels equally at ease with aplysias (giant marine snails) in the research lab as with Schiele’s disturbing nude self-portraits or Schnitzler’s plays – he majored in European history and literature at Harvard.

Kandel recalls "the extraordinary fascination that psychoanalysis held for young people in 1950", when it "outlined by far the most coherent, interesting and nuanced view of the human mind." This promise has been kept: Freud’s ideas are being vindicated by advances in neurobiology. We must, however, as Kandel briefly alludes, put aside Freud’s view of female sexuality as "a ‘dark continent’ for psychology", whilst Vienna’s aesthetic explorers of the unconscious mind, Klimt and Schiele, depicted women in a far more perceptive way.

The shift toward a biological conception of self, which Freud called for a century ahead of its time, has been made possible by technological advances like brain imaging, is re-shaping our understanding of human nature. In the world of art, this shift was made earlier. The Viennese Modernists dealt with aggression, sexuality and suffering in a new pictorial language. The writer Arthur Schnitzler, who had studied medicine and psychology, was so fascinated by sexuality that he kept a diary from age 17 until his death, in which he narrated his numerous sexual encounters.


An intellectual journey

At the beginning of his career, Kandel found that the neural wiring of evolved creatures such as ourselves (equipped with 100 billion neurons) is basically identical to that found in very primitive species such as the marine snail (only 20,000 very large neurons) – an abhorrence for some colleagues. Yet his success showed that what works well at one (lowly) level of evolution is conserved at the more advanced levels.

Indeed, Darwin, who greatly influenced both Freud and Klimt, occupies a prominent place in this intellectual history, defining six universal components of emotion that are still used today: happiness and fear, and between these two poles, surprise, disgust, sadness and anger.


In this dazzling journey across many fields of science and the arts, readers are guided by one of the world’s most renowned scientists, an omnivorous, enthusiastic thinker. Drawing from the latest research, Kandel cites scientists and art experts, explaining for example, what happens when we look at a work of art and explain why we respond as we do to faces, lines and colours, more than, for example, form. To this end, the many, beautiful illustrations are finely analysed.

Much care has been taken to make the text of this very complex book accessible to a general audience; it is thankfully devoid of superfluous jargon. Still, the book sometimes reads like a set of lectures following a spiral approach, revisiting knowledge at ever-higher levels of understanding, meaning that some repetition is unavoidable.

Now a sprightly 82-year old, Kandel champions building bridges between art and science, with Vienna 1900 – The Age of Insight – serving as a seminal example, ending with an impassioned plea for a "new biology of mind… to facilitate a new dialogue between the natural sciences and the humanities and social sciences." ÷

The Age of Insight

by Eric R. Kandel

Random House (2012)

pp. 636

Order this book online

Other articles from this issue