Eric A. Kandel, The Age of Insight (2012)

Eric Kandel, The Age of Insight (2012)Eric A. Kandel, The Age of Insight (2012), 508p.

On April 16, Eric Kandel spoke at the Rubin Museum about his new book ‘The Age of Insight.’ The dialog between Prochnik and Kandel was lacking poignant questions, but Kandel’s personal history and his love of talking, so typical for a man his age and standing, or his art of story telling was both highly amusing and slightly obnoxious. I decided to buy and read his book because I love the encompassing space of art, science and the mind. Kandel is a charming and inspiring man of age and an accomplished neuropsychiatrist who in 2000 won the Nobel prize for his work on memory storage.

Kandel was born in 1929 in Vienna and escaped the Nazi terror with his family in 1938. Kandel’s book traces back the Fin de Siecle of Vienna and in a way re-invents his own life as he seems to imagine it. He looks back on his personal history and the history of the science of the mind, the two paths merge in the course of Kandel’s career. Kandel happily borrows from this magnificent era in Viennese history to write about a science of beauty.

‘Age of Insight’ can be divided into three different parts:
1. A history of psychology and neurology,
2. An introduction to Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, and
3. The neurology of perception and the creative brain.

The history of psychology, pathology and neurology has decisively been influenced by the role of the Vienna Hospital. The history of the Vienna Hospital and its influence on science is worth a book on its own and these chapters are fascinating. The topic of the following chapters is as mesmerizing.

The style of the book however is rather inconsistent and i am not always sure if the mission for this book was very clear. I cannot help to wonder if the book was strongly directed by the publisher instead of the author himself, or if the author didn’t give the design of the book enough time, not spending enough time editing, rewriting and shortening it by 100 pages. Though the topics of the book on their own are worth reading the book and the cohesion between the different topics is credible due to the role Vienna played both in the history of psychology and in Kandel’s personal history, the book leaves the impression of not being finished. Comparing it to ‘Goedel, Escher, Bach‘ by Douglas Hofstadter or ‘Dreams 1900-2000‘ by Lynn Gamwell, the book falls short in style, even if it matches it in content and intent.

Nevertheless the topic and motivation for the book are inspiring. The developments in science are spectacular and the narrowing of the gap between hard sciences like neurology and biochemistry on one hand and psychology and humanist studies on the other hand is exciting. A new science of beauty is bound to have a major influence on Art.

Rubin Museum of Art, Eric Kandel and George Prochnik:
The Age of Insight, April 16, 2012

The Age of Insight, by Eric Kandel (2012) at Random House

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