Kandel Illuminates Art and Mind: Book Review by Barry and Kupferman

Click here to read “Healing a Shattered World: The Bridge Between Neuroscience and Art,” a review by Virginia Barry & Justine Kupferman of Eric R. Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The Quest to Undertand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain.

Here is a treat for us at multiple levels. Eric Kandel, Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist, a scholar of memory, has written a new book on insights into art and our minds. This refugee from Vienna returns to the Secessionist artists to reflect on how they portray inner life on the canvas.

For me, this is a personal reminiscence. Bruno Bettelheim was invited to speak at the Pratt Institute well after he retired. His Ph.D. in Vienna was on aesthetics. He spoke about his favorite artists, Schiele, Kokoschka and Klimt. He was moved to be invited to Pratt and to talk of his first love, these artists.

We are fortunate to have a mother-daughter team review this book. Dr. Virginia Barry, a Chicago psychoanalyst (who trained at Michael Reese when I also trained there under Roy Grinker Sr.) joins her daughter, Justine Kupferman, a graduate student in neuroscience at Columbia.

No more delays. Dive into a fascinating review of a remarkable book.

Nathan Szajnberg, MD, Managing Editor.

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3 Comments on “Kandel Illuminates Art and Mind: Book Review by Barry and Kupferman”

  1. nathan Szajnberg Says:

    From Dr. Francis Baudry:
    Only now did I have a chance to read the scholarly review of Kandell’s book hence my late reply. At the start I must admit my bias; although this book is a treasure trove of information (it should be discussed and reported on at our place perhaps WIP?) I do not find the contribution of neuroscience at this time of compelling interest either in my work as analyst nor in the understanding of my esthetic response and involvement in visual art. Adding a biological basis for certain reactions is only of potential interest stimulating but not terribly creative.That being said I disagree with some minor issues. I do not find Romanesque art’s superficial stiffness terribly relevant to its appeal.It happens to be one of my favorite periods . True there is little facial expression but there is an intense spirituality which I find very moving. Take a look at the 12th century virgin from Auvergne at the Met and you will hopefully see what I mean. Rather than art trying to plumb the UCS as they say the expressionists attempted I prefer the term ‘imagination of the artist’ and its multiple forms both CS, PCS and UCS. How can you render the unknowable anyway? Arlow has written some lovely papers on the influence of the UCS on perception. Finally I think it is a disservice to Freud to think of his theory as a ‘one person system’. Anyhow these are my musings.
    Frank Baudry

  2. Virginia Barry & Justine Kupferman Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. In many ways we agree with you. We too find Romanesque art to be deeply moving, and it is neither our intention, nor Kandel’s, to pass judgment on any period of art. Kandel was highlighting
    the question of early twentieth century Vienna addressed by the portrait painters, and also using this as a vehicle to further Freud’s project (begun in the milieu in which intellectuals from many disciplines were exploring the existence of unconscious processes) of articulating a biology of mind. In this project, Kandel’s work stands on the shoulders of the first psychoanalyst, Prof. Sigmund Freud.

    What does Dr. Baudry mean when he writes of rendering “the unknowable?”

    Many people voice Dr. Baudry’s concern that current knowledge of neuroscience still has little to say about what we do clinically. Those people would likely say that we should continue to learn about the brain, but since said knowledge doesn’t change what we do, it doesn’t at this time seem particularly compelling. Indeed, the psychoanalytic technique has stood the test of time; psychoanalysts have a unique way of listening to the data understood in the context of free associations, of transference and countertransference, of defenses, and so forth. And the brilliant listeners among us have been able to discern organizational patterns in their patients without relying on knowledge garnered from understanding development or attachment research or neuroscience. But for many of us, learning about the different ways that memories can be stored, or how anxiety disrupts cognition, or how plasticity of the brain manifests itself in rapid psychological transformations, alters how we listen to and ultimately help our patients, and even (dare we suggest it) alters technique. Will knowledge about the brain alter our psychoanalytic technique? Are you sure that it hasn’t already altered yours? Perhaps we have to wait for the answer to both those questions.

    As to the question of whether to think of Freud’s theory as a “one-person system,” we think Dr. Baudry raises a legitimate concern about the one-person/two-person terminology that is flawed in many ways. Indeed, when we read Freud, we are often amazed to find how much he does talk about the impact of the emotional environment on the psyche. Yet, he is more known to speak about the inexorable pressure of the drives – not modified by nurture or experience – whereas the expression of the drive might be modified. Emerging neuroscience expands our concepts of drive and motivational systems, and details how much the interaction between parent and child is a two-way exchange, both being altered by the process. This seems to apply also to the psychoanalytic exchange. But perhaps you still disagree?

  3. Francis Baudry Says:

    The unconscious by its very nature is unknowable, Green has explored this isue in depth. We can only reconstruct it by its derivatives. The early 20th century surrealists were enthralled by the possibility of accessing the uCS so they explored dreams (andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp) ; but Freud wisely consdered their attempts as amateurish at best really disregarding the nature of the functioning of the psychic apparatus . This is why I prefer the study of imagination rather than that of the UCS of the artist which is only a specualtive construction at best.

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