Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University is best known for having won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, for his work on the molecular biology of memory. But he is also a great humanist scholar, with critically-acclaimed books on his native Vienna circa 1900, and a new book out called Reductionism in Art and Brain Science. Between his prize, his books, and a 2009 documentary film, In Search of Memory, which follows him to his childhood haunts in Vienna, he has become a more public figure. The charming, vivacious, bow-tied octogenarian, he is still hard at work in his labs, including one focuses on Aplysia giant sea snails, whose large brains with an extremely simple molecular structure allowed him to gain insight into memory that had been too difficult in more complex organisms. The European Review spoke to him on his birthday about Freud and female sexuality, Mondrian-izing your notes, and post-coital trances.
Eric Kandel (EK): It’s my birthday, so it’s a little bit chaotic around here.
Noah Charney (NC): You’re kidding, well, happy birthday! How did you choose which works of art to include in your book on reductionism, art and the brain?
EK: The selection of artists was pretty straightforward, once I decided I wanted to do New York School Abstract Expressionists. I could’ve included some of the less well-known artists, but I wanted the book to be fairly concise, so I dealt with the best-known artists, including Pollock, Rothko, etc.
NC: Though it may not have the reductionism component, what are your thoughts on formal art?
EK: In my earlier book [The Age of Insight] I deal with formal art. I come from Vienna, and I was interested in Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele. They are exclusively figurative.
NC: You’ve written that Klimt and Schiele understood female sexuality better than Freud.
EK: Freud, whom I admire a great deal, was weak in some things, and one of them was his insight into female sexuality. This may have been due to his lack of experience with women. There’s some discussion in the literature over whether he slept with more than one woman in his life, his wife. There’s some thought that he might have slept with his sister-in-law, but that’s controversial. He thought that women do not enjoy sex. That they engage in sex primarily to have children, and they want to have boys, because boys have penises. But if you look at Klimt’s drawings… Klimt slept with several hundred women. And you can see that he had tremendous insight into female sexuality. He was influenced by Rodin, and Rodin told his models, “Don’t pose for me, just do whatever you want. If I find it interesting, I’ll draw you.” Klimt said the same thing. The models would relax, they would spread themselves, they would masturbate. If some interesting man came in, they would have sex with him. Klimt depicting him in an elegant, not at all pornographic way. It really struck me how much insight he had than Freud. Klimt has this marvelous painting, Judith and Holofernes. Holofernes was an Assyrian general who laid a siege around a town near Jerusalem. After a few weeks the siege was so severe, people starving, that Judith, a modest widow, some 22 or 23 years old, snuck out of the siege and found Holofernes, encouraged him to drink more, he was at a party, then got him to take her to his tent. They had sex together, and he was exhausted from sex and drink, and fell asleep. She took a sword and cut off his head. This has been repeatedly depicted in Western art. This widow sacrificing herself for her people. But this is not how Klimt depicts her. She’s in a post-coital trance. Her breasts are exposed. She’s holding the head of Holofernes in the corner of the painting. Klimt realized that women, like men, had strong sex drives and could use eroticism in aggression.
NC: I’m fascinated with your interdisciplinary work on Vienna. Were there other great moments in specific cities, like Vienna circa 1900, that capture your imagination?
EK: Well, New York in the Abstract Expressionist era. The reason I chose that was the fact that, with that artistic movement, art moved from Vienna and Paris to New York. But the Impressionists in France, very powerful. Picasso and the Cubists. These are wonderful groups, centered on Paris. They had a big impact on my thinking.
NC: Is there any study of how the mind reacts differently when shown an original artwork and a copy or forgery? There were some informal studies I know of in which people were shown an original and a computer-generated version of a Mondrian painting…
EK: There have been very few imaging studies. I’m starting to do it, but by and large, it has not been done. People have done psychological studies of various kinds, but not on this topic. I would think that most people would be deceived by good imitations. Experts are deceived, so you would expect that normal viewers would be deceived.
NC: How about the art of memory. I’m interested in Giordano Bruno. How has how we remember changed since the 1930s, when people stopped studying the art of memory. That’s not, I imagine, long enough for any physiognomic changes, but what about the way we remember?
EK: Not as far as one knows. Today we have a much better understanding of memory. In the 1930s, we didn’t have any real understanding of the biology of memory. We now have a very good insight. We know that memory is not a unitary faculty of mind, we know there are two major forms: implicit, non-declarative, and explicit, declarative. Explicit is the form of memory you think of when you think of memory. Recall of people places and objects. It involves consciousness and, specifically, the hippocampus. Implicit memory is non-conscious recall of motor skills. So, when you’re riding your bicycle, you don’t have to concentrate, you just do it automatically. There are many things that you do. Hitting backhand in tennis.
NC: With our over-reliance on gadgetry, telephones and computers, how long will it take for our mind to physically change, to be able to remember less?
EK: I honestly don’t know. I think it would happen over years, decades. Certainly now people rely on their memory much less, as you indicated. Every relies on their phones, as you say. You’re speaking about anatomical changes in the brain that are very profound. I’m speaking about strategies people use. That would happen in your lifetime.
NC: It already has. I’ve barely memorized my wife’s phone number, and I used to know dozens of numbers.
EK: You’ll now have a more difficult time memorizing telephone numbers.
NC: Has reading changed over time? I just finished a book on Giorgio Vasari and the Renaissance. Back then, if someone had the fortune to have access to a book, they would do their best to memorize its content, knowing that they might never have access to it again. These days we consume so much text and information without trying to remember it.
EK: I think people read more extensively and frequently. There the opposite has occurred. They’re more facile with their reading than ever before.
NC: I find myself reading more, but having less recall of the content. Do you have any recommendations for retaining what we read better?
EK: Yes! Slow down! Take notes.
NC: When I teach history, I use a version a reductionism, but I didn’t know what to call it until now. I used to call it the “Mondrian-ization” of note-taking. The idea of distilling the content of a lecture into the tightest, most concise amount of information that you can, that still conveys the ideas you need to remember. The analogy is of Mondrian’s paintings of trees. First formal, then a bit more abstract, then even more, until he’s left with an assembly of lines that still suggest tree-ness. Try to do this with notes. The other analogy is boiling down apple juice, releasing the water until you’re left with an apple concentrate, the smallest amount to ingest, to memorize. And the act of paring away the excess and trying to determine the core that must be recalled actually helps to recall it.
EK: You’re absolutely right. You can use reductionism in a variety of contexts.
NC: Your major reductionist breakthrough was making the study of the brain easier for yourself by choosing the simplest, largest brain available—of giant sea snails. Was there a second-place creature on your list, if the snails hadn’t worked out?
EK: I chose the giant snail because it was very easy to work with. Once it became possible to modify genes in mice, I opened up a second line of research in my career. So giant snails in mice.
NC: There’s a joke/truism that the field of art history is Jews teaching Protestants about Catholics. The biggest strides in analysis of Catholic art have been Jewish art historians. Any thoughts on what makes Jewish scholars so interested in, and good at teaching about, a subject that is exotic and foreign to their cultural backgrounds?
EK: Jews have been scholars in all areas, outside of their own culture, from the beginning of time. They were the first university literate people. Scholarship was first dedicated to the Bible and the Talmud, but very soon it reached out to other things. Many Jews moved into medicine, law, journalism. Finance. I hadn’t thought of their contribution to art history as particularly profound. Gombrich was a Jew, but converted, not very serious.
NC: What is there about approaching a subject from an external discipline that seems to open new doors and lead to the most exciting discoveries? The interdisciplinary nature of art history allows for different incite and the newest ground is broken by “outsiders.”
EK: This is correct, and it’s true in all areas. It’s good to have an outside perspective, and it’s certainly true in art history. Within a field the focus can be very narrow, so it’s good to have some fresh insight.
NC: How has your work and life changed since winning the Nobel Prize? And with your more popular books and your starring in a documentary film based on your book?
EK: It’s made me more recognizable. I walk into a museum or the opera, and invariably someone will approach because they’ve seen me on the Charlie Rose Show or otherwise recognize my face.
NC: Is there an object in your office, maybe on your desk, that is a particular favorite and for which you could share a story?
EK: I have many objects and photographs in my office. I have a picture of my colleagues and myself at the beginning of my career, when I had a small lab at Harvard Medical School. I have a large poster of the cover of my book about Vienna, The Age of Insight, on my wall. I have a very well-decorated office.
NC: When you come to work in the morning, do you have any unusual quirks or rituals that you perform? A magic hat or something?
EK: Nope. All I do is work hard.