While I am familiar with the rules of composition, I have often wondered why we like odd numbered compositions more than even, why the rule of thirds is the rule of thirds. I mean, we all know that it looks “right” but why? It’s hard-wired, so what’s the why behind the what. I read The Age of Insight hoping to find some answers. While I didn’t find answers to my specific questions, I did learn a lot more about how we are hard-wired not just to value art, but to be artists. I learned so much more about how our brain functions and how our brain functions on art and it was fabulous.
Eric Kandel is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, a neuroscientist who knows more about how the brain works than most of the brains in the world united. He is also a polymath who might have majored in History rather than medicine if he had not fallen in love. I do have to say the most romantic gesture I have ever seen in a book is found in this book. I read it and could only say, “Awwwww.” Then I had to tell everyone because it was so sweet. Don’t worry, you’ll recognize it when you come to it.
Kandel looks at how art has been influenced by our growing understanding of the mind and of psychology and how our brains experience and appreciate art. We learn about the conscious, the unconscious and why it’s always a smart thing to go putter around or go for a walk when you’re stuck trying to solve a problem. We learn a lot about fin de siècle Vienna and the social scene that mixed scientists, doctors, and artists together to cross-pollinate and they did – leading to the Expressionist movement and a wild burst of creativity in science, medicine, psychology and art.
Do not be intimidated by the idea of a Nobel neuroscientist writing a book for you to read. Kandel writes beautifully and clearly. He never condescends or dumbs it down, but he distills the central ideas without overloading readers with minute details. He explains processes with clarity and makes effective use of metaphors. It also seems as though neuroscience is unique in the sciences in not creating a taxonomy of exclusion. Here’s an example of what I mean, “Segregation of information begins in the primary visual cortex. There, as we have seen, information is relayed along one of two parallel pathways—the what pathway and the where pathway.” Why they didn’t name the what pathway the flibbertyhoosit I have no idea, but hooray for names that are descriptive. This makes it much easier to follow and so even though I am a lay reader who didn’t even take biology in high school, I had no trouble following the science.
Kandel is a beautiful writer and when he writes about art, he is eloquent and authoritative. He talks about emotional reactions to art and you know that he his talking about how art moves him. He has the scientist’s gift of organizing information so the book makes sense in how it presents information. it all hangs together into one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. I enjoyed it so much that I have backtracked and read passages again just for the pleasure of understanding what he is talking about when it’s a topic I should feel intimidated by and for the joy of reading someone who loves art, science, the mind, and wants to bring them all together. He is enthusiastic, excited by the idea of consilience – a unity of knowledge, though doubtful that it can happen in the foreseeable future, but reading this book, you can see the potential even within this one man.
- The Age of Insight at Penguin Random House
- Eric Kandel faculty page at Columbia University
- Eric Kandel at Howard Hughes Medical Institute
- Eric Kandel at the Nobel Prize
- Eric Kandel Wired Interview, Spiegel Interview
- The Biological Response to Beauty and Ugliness (Excerpt)