Science Meets Art in New Kandel Book

Creativity (2).jpgWe don’t typically think of science and art as rooted in similar methodologies or techniques. Science is considered a strict, fact-based study of the world around us, while art is a no-rules expression of creativity. By thinking of the two disciplines as distinctly different, there has not been much study of their similarities.

Dana Alliance member Eric R. Kandel, M.D., noticed the lack of interdisciplinary study of artistic and scientific methodologies and used it as the foundation for his new book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. The book examines modern neuroscience alongside modern art, focusing on how both disciplines use reductive techniques. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal about his book, Kandel said:

This is reductionism—to take a complex problem and select a central, but limited, component that you can study in depth. Rothko—only color. And yet the power it conveys is fantastic. Jackson Pollock got rid of all form.

[In neuroscience] you have to look at how behavior is changed by environmental experience…I began to realize we’ve got to find a very simple learning situation…I looked around for an animal that had the kind of [simple] nervous system I would like. Aplysia [has] the largest nerve cells in the animal kingdom.

Kandel’s Nobel Prize-winning research on learning and memory relied heavily on the observation of the Aplysia californica, a sea slug with only 20,000 large neurons. Limiting the complexity of the system he studied allowed him to better understand the much more complicated human nervous system, which has approximately 100-billion neurons.

He believes that modern art benefits from the same type of reductionism because it allows the brain to focus on top-down processing, which creates responses tied to the viewer’s past experiences, rather than bottom-up processing, which creates responses based on the viewer’s understanding of what is portrayed. Removing detail that carries a set meaning allows the viewer a more reflective experience.  In a recently published short excerpt of the book Kandel describes this shift in focus:

In abstract painting, elements are included not as visual reproductions of objects, but as references or clues to how we conceptualize objects. In describing the world they see, abstract artists not only dismantle many of the building blocks of bottom-up visual processing by eliminating perspective and holistic depiction, they also nullify some of the premises on which bottom-up processing is based. We scan an abstract painting for links between line segments, for recognizable contours and objects, but in the most fragmented works, such as those by Mark Rothko, Dan Flavin, and James Turrell, our efforts are thwarted.

Thus the reason abstract art poses such an enormous challenge to the beholder is that it teaches us to look at art—and, in a sense, at the world—in a new way. Abstract art dares our visual system to interpret an image that is fundamentally different from the kind of images our brain has evolved to reconstruct.

To read the full excerpt, see The Scientist. For more great reads by Alliance members, check out our summer reading suggestions.

– Ali Chunovic

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