The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present

Eric R. Kandel. Random, $40 (656p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6871-5
In this engrossing if overstuffed treatise, Nobel-winning neuroscientist Kandel (In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind) excavates the hidden workings of the creative mind. He starts with the art of Viennese Modernist painters Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, linking their distorted imagery, intense evocations of neurotic emotion, and frank erotic themes to Freud’s contemporaneous theorizing on the unconscious mind and repressed sexuality. From there Kandel leaps to the hard science of how unconscious neural mechanisms underlying everything from visual perception to emotional impulses determine conscious aesthetic reactions. (It’s the varying acuities of the retina’s cone cells, he contends, that make the Mona Lisa’s smile so enigmatic.) Kandel writes perceptively about a range of topics, from art history—the book’s color reproductions alone make it a great browse—to dyslexia. Inevitably, his brush-strokes-to-brain waves ambition to integrate so many subjects feels a ill-chewed; it’s either too dense or too sketchy, and too quick to assimilate Freudian-modernist notions of the unconscious to scientific concepts. Still, Kandel captures the reader’s imagination with intriguing historical syntheses and fascinating scientific insights into how we see—and feel—the world. (Mar. 27)
Reviewed on: 02/20/2012
Release date: 03/27/2012
Genre: Nonfiction
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