The Age of Insight

Just finished reading Eric Kandel’s new book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain.  Kandel, a Nobel Laureate, has always been a personal favorite of sorts, ever since I came across his incredible co-authored work on The Principles of Neural Science.  I became en even bigger admirer of Kandel after reading the insightful jacket liner note he wrote for Sue Barry’s book, Fixing My Gaze.

Some reviewers have positioned Kandel’s new contribution  as the latest in a series of books on neuroaesthetics.  It is certainly in the tradition of fine books by scientists on art and vision, notably the masterpieces by  Zeki, Livingstone, and Marmor & Ravin.  But Kandel goes a bit further, turning the book into a cathartic autobiography of sorts, reaching back to his pre-Holocaust roots in Vienna while celebrating the current day confluence of the arts and sciences.  He credits Freud with introducing the Theory of Mind, a 21st century centerpiece in discussions about Autism Spectrum Disorder.  That may be a stretch but isn’t entirely surprising, given the fact that Dr. Kandel’s early background was in the clinical practice of psychiatry.

Although Kandel mentions in his acknowledgments at the end of the book that three of the pioneers in creativity and art, Damasio, Zeki, and Ramachandran had significant input on the mansuscript, what caught my eye was his mention of Tom Albright for input on the chapters about visual perception.  Behavioral optometrists may recall that Dr. Albright is a Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Vision Center Laboratory at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, who contributed this wonderful comment to Marjie Thompson’s PAVE Video:

“There is no question that there are a large number children who are diagnosed at some point during the course of their education as learning disabled. I firmly believe that one possible cause for this, is the failure of the visual system to process information in a normal way.”

Albright’s insights into visual perception are evident in Kandel’s thinking.  On his lab’s web site Albright writes:

“Research in our laboratory focuses on the neural structures and events underlying the perception of motion, form, and color. Recent studies of the primate cerebral cortex have unveiled the existence of multiple areas devoted to the processing of visual information. Richly interconnected collections of these areas constitute functional subsystems for the detection, analysis, and interpretation of specific types of visual information. Through an integrative approach, which combines neurophysiological and psychophysical techniques, as well as computational modeling of neural networks, we are beginning to illuminate the mechanics of information processing in these high-level visual areas and to define their unique contributions to visual perception and visually guided behavior.”

The Vienna Circle, which serves as the principal intellectual backdrop for Kandel’s journey, espoused reductionism.  Kandel asserts that by encouraging a dialogue between science and art, reductionism can expand our vision and give new insights into the nature and creation of art.  Behavioral optometrists are familiar with the tension between reductionism which seeks to treat biological processes as the sum of their constituent parts, and emergence which posits that a biological process such as vision is something more than the sum of its circles.  Kandel is wide-ranging in his connections between art, empathy, and visual perception.  In few other sources would you be able to read about the influence that Helmholtz had on Freud.  I would have liked to have seen him take it a step further, and delve into Freud’s discovery of the visual conversion reaction – a forerunner of the Streff Syndrome.

Nevertheless Kandel makes some powerful observations.  For example, when Helmhotz turned his attention to the study of vision, he realized that any static, two-dimensional image contains poor-quality, incomplete information.  To reconstruct the dynamic, 3D world from which the image was formed, the brain needs additional information.  In fact, if the brain relied solely on the information it received from the eyes, vision would be impossible.  The visual system creates representations in the brain in the form of neural codes that require far more information than the modest amount it receives from the eyes.  That additional information is created within the brain, a reconstruction of the retina’s deconstruction in perhaps the finest example of top-down information informing bottom-up information and vice-versa.  The brain processes visual information on a fine scale for a parts-based analysis, and on a coarse scale for a holistic analysis.

You can get a sense of the artistic qualities of the book by listening to Ira Flatow’s NPR audio interview with Eric Kandel, its personal qualities via Charlie Rose’s video interview, and its intellectual scope via the Wired interview with Jonah Lehrer.  You can even view a lengthy artsy interview with Kandel recorded at the New York Public Library in April.  But nothing substitutes for the neuroaesthetic of holding the book in your hand and reading about various visual pathways adorned through the lines, edges and paintings selected by Kandel as a guide on this literary  Tour de Force.

2 thoughts on “The Age of Insight

  1. In Principles of Neuroscience, Kandel states that understanding vision may well be the key to understanding consciousness. It’d be great to get him a room with Alva Noe!

    • Agreed, Paul. Two excellent sources on that topic are Francis Crick’s Astonishing Hypothesis (1994), Paul Churchland’s book around the same time (I think it was Engine or Reason) and Christof Koch’s Quest for Consciousness (2004). The Salk Institute in particular, where Crick focused a spotlight on vision & consciousness, fostered a good atmosphere with Albright and Ramanchandran. For awhile Claude Valenti had input to the group,. but it’s been awhile since they involved input from Optometry. Would be nice to see that resurrected.

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