He dives into the cultural ferment of 19th century Vienna, seeking to understand why the city was such a fount of new ideas, but he also explores the neuroscience of aesthetics, attempting to explain why some works of art, such as Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” continue to haunt us.
The Age Of Insight
Author: Jonah Lehrer
Eric Kandel is a titan of modern neuroscience. He won the Nobel Prize in 2000 not simply for discovering a new set of scientific facts (although he has discovered plenty of those), but for pioneering a new scientific approach. As he recounts in his memoir In Search of Memory, Kandel demonstrated that reductionist techniques could be applied to the brain, so that even something as mysterious as memory might be studied in sea slugs, as a function of kinase enzymes and synaptic proteins. (The memories in question involved the “habituation” of the slugs to a poke; they basically got bored of being prodded.) Because natural selection is a deeply conservative process – evolution doesn’t mess with success – it turns out that humans rely on almost all of the same neural ingredients as those inveterbrates. Memory has a nearly universal chemistry.
But Kandel is not just one of the most important scientists of our time – he’s also an omnivorous public intellectual, deeply knowledgeable about everything from German art to the history of psychoanalysis. In his marvelous new book, The Age of Insight, Kandel puts this learning on display. He dives into the cultural ferment of 19th century Vienna, seeking to understand why the city was such a fount of new ideas, but he also explores the neuroscience of aesthetics, attempting to explain why some works of art, such as Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” continue to haunt us. In many respects, the book imitates those famous Viennese salons, in which artists, scientists and doctors exchanged ideas and gave birth to a new way of thinking about the mind. (The city was a case-study in consilience.) If you’re interested in the intersection of art and science, the book is a must-read.
: The Age of Insight is, in part, a remarkable history of fin-de-siècle Vienna, which strikes me as an astonishingly rich creative period. What do you think led to such a flourishing of science and culture in Vienna at the turn of the century?
: Beginning in about 1850, Vienna was changed dramatically. Responding to the liberal pressure, Emperor Franz Josef began to evolve the Empire along more democratic lines. One of the consequences of this democratization was a freeing up of travel, which allowed people to move readily throughout the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Many came to Vienna. In addition, Franz Josef transformed Vienna into one of the most beautiful cities in the world. As a Christmas present to the citizens of Vienna, in 1857, Franz Josef ordered the demolition of the old walls surrounding the city, and replaced these walls with the Ringstrasse – a grand boulevard that would encircle the city. The Ringstrasse now became lined with a wonderful set of public buildings such as the Opera House, the Theater, and the Museum of Fine Arts and Natural History. As a result, the city attracted many people of different ethnic and religious origins from all over the Empire, who were drawn to Vienna, for its beauty, its music, and its emphasis on intellectual and cultural achievement. A number of these people went on to pioneer a distinctive form of Modernism that characterized Vienna and distinguished it from Modernism in France, Italy and Germany.
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