Is There a Science of Art? The Findings of Eric Kandel

Eric Kandel is the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University. In 2000, he shared the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries about how memory is created and stored. He has just published a new book, The Art of Insight. Here are two excerpts from an article published in the Daily Beast on April 1.

The way to understand memory processing is not through Marcel Proust, as Kandel discovered in the 1960s, but through a sea snail. The mollusk Aplysia has very large nerve cells that can be observed easily, and instead of studying complicated mammalian brains, Kandel found that you can simplify processes like “learning” and “memory” by poking at the poor snail. Touch the snail’s head with a glass rod, and it retracts its gills. But if you repeat the sequence often enough, the animal stops its withdrawal reflex – this is called “habituation,” which is another word for very basic learning. As a result of such experiences, new connections are formed between cells. This is how memory is stored and learning takes place.…

To many people, it wouldn’t be immediately apparent how these simple processes bring about insight into art. But Kandel makes the leap in The Age of Insight when he takes up simple spatial representations. For example, the eye of the frog contains cells that fire in response to small, moving spots – this is how flies become dinner. But put a frog in the middle of a field of motionless, recently killed flies and it will starve. Young herring gulls open their mouths wide when they see the red spot on their parents’ beaks; paint over the spot and the chicks ignore the food the adults bring. These are examples of the importance of “attention” and “stimulus” on spatial memory – minimal clues can determine perception and behavior. If you think that humans are no toads, think again – in engaging and gratifying chapters that make up the bridge of The Age of Insight, Kandel shows example after example of how even a complex organ like the human brain reconstructs sensory information through incomplete data. The brain can be easily tricked. (Do yourself a favor and look up the Kanizsa Triangle.) Skeptical? Think of the power that large breasts hold over men. Talk about a stimulus.


One response to “Is There a Science of Art? The Findings of Eric Kandel

  1. Richard Nielsen

    I am always put off by the efforts of scientists to claim some relationship with art. Their lack of comprehension of the subject is on display in the remarks of Mr. Kandel. He seeks for universality in the way we comprehend and express ourselves when all art is a product of individuality, not what we have in common but what we have that is our own to share.

    It’s subjectivity, stupid!