Nobel Winner Eric Kandel: ‘The Age of Insight,’ Memory, the Holocaust, and the Art of Vienna

In his new book The Age of Insight, the memory biologist Eric Kandel studies the art of Vienna, where he fled from the Nazis when he was 9. Jimmy So talks to the Nobel winner.

Start at the end. My advice, if you were to find yourself with a copy of Eric Kandel's new book, The Age of Insight—and I recommend that you do—is to first read the acknowledgments, on page 511. For at the end of this handsome chunk of text come the most personal memories: "I was born in Vienna on November 7, 1929 … Near our house were three museums that I never visited as a child, but whose subject matter later came to fascinate me and that now assumed a significant role in this book.”

The first is the Vienna Medical Museum celebrating, among others, the pioneering work of medical doctor Carl von Rokitansky. The second is the Sigmund Freud Museum, which used to be the great man’s apartment. The third is the Upper Belvedere Museum, which houses the world’s greatest collection of the paintings of Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele. So arrives, in the autumn of a long and decorated life, The Age of Insight, which really is one continuous and loving acknowledgment—of the debt that Kandel owes to the ghosts of great figures.

Kandel, the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University, always has a lab coat that drapes over his body. He wears a bow tie, and holds court in a spectacular corner office overlooking the Hudson River. I walked in thinking these were signs of authority and tradition, of an outer protective layer. But I was mistaken. Kandel laughs so very easily, and when he does his mouth opens like a Muppet’s. He points to a small painting on his wall, a Bruegel-like scene of town folks punching one another. “That? That is Columbia academics,” and bursts into giggles. This is a man who by all expectations should be feared and looked up to. In 2000 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for far-reaching discoveries about how memory—that mysterious, illusive dream—is created and stored. He is regarded as something of a modern-day Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of remembrance, with ghosts that ought to be cursed.

How does the brain store sights, sounds, smells, touch, and emotional feelings—in other words, the very stuff that make up art and gives meaning to life?

How cursed? Take yourself back to Vienna, 1929, and you’ll recognize that it is not so many years away from the dark clouds of Nazi Germany, and Kandel is Jewish. When Eric turned 9, his father, who owned a toy store, gave him a battery-operated, remote-controlled, shiny blue model car.

Two days later, it was Kristallnacht. The family was interrupted by heavy banging at the door, rounded up by Nazi policemen, and relocated, as the city’s synagogues burned.

But Vienna before Hitler was a thing of beauty—the center of world culture, a city decorated in gold leafs. You could catch the sight of the director of the Vienna Court Opera walking to work on the Ringstrasse and hear folks exclaim, “Der Mahler!” The novelist Arthur Schnitzler jotted down the confessions of his heroes’ subconscious realms. In the center of this brew of intellectual giants and salon elites, were artists like Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele, who were drawing explicit, writhing figures plopped into the middle of a graphic, cluttered world.

Kandel, turns out, was always a product of his artsy hometown. “My heart beats in three-quarter time,” he wrote. But how does he fit in to this concoction of bohemian aesthetics? How does a scientist swerve into the orbit of paint? Turns out, the search for memory, if you work your way back, is one of the great stories of the humanities.

We are in America, 1939. The Kandel family has survived Kristallnacht intact, and Eric had boarded the S.S. Gerolstein to New York. It would be many years before Kandel took up the problem of memory again. “I wanted to understand how people could listen to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven one day and beat up the Jews the next,” Kandel told me. He thought he could do it by studying intellectual history at Harvard. Then he met the art historian and psychoanalyst Ernst Kris. “He said, ‘The way to understand motivation is through psychoanalysis.’” So Kandel took up the discipline invented by Freud, and set out to discover why people hold grudges.

This was how he stumbled upon one of the biggest problems with psychoanalysis: memory. How does the brain store sights, sounds, smells, touch, and emotional feelings—in other words, the very stuff that make up art and gives meaning to life? “Memory has always fascinated me,” Kandel wrote in his lucid and engaging 2006 book, In Search of Memory. “Think of it. You can recall at will your first day in high school, your first date, your first love.” How do nerve cells store a film reel like that? And how does eating a piece of petites madeleines with a spoonful of tea bring back a rush of lost time?

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. Kandel had become a neurobiologist.

‘The Age of Insight’ by Eric Kandel. 656 pp. Random House. $40. ()

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.

Kandel, in breaking down the parts that make up a Klimt mural or a Kokoschka portrait, analyzes the shortcuts we make in connecting with a painting emotionally. What’s more, the Viennese, with Freud and Schnitzler looking over their shoulders, were particularly good at depicting death, violence, hysteria, and sex—the very forces that drive the unconscious. There are many more great works of art that don’t appeal to any of that. But nobody said Kandel is trying to distill universal theorems on how we view paintings—he’s simply introducing another way of seeing.

I asked him whether critics and historians are threatened by his intrusion. “I don’t think neurobiology is going to replace aesthetics or art history,” he said. “It’s a parallel discipline that adds a new dimension. I always compare it to Leonardo da Vinci looking at the structure of the human body, and you learn more about how the joints work and how the bones connect to one another, and then you can be more realistic as a painter.” It’s almost a no-brainer, if you will, to recognize that there is a science of art—at least, to looking at art. After all, we see images with our eyes and process them with our brains, which are both naturally selected organs. A well-done biological analysis of art shouldn’t take away the fun.

“Life is sort of a circle,” Kandel said, after a long pause, as if running his fingers back on the memories of his time. “You come back to a lot of the interests that you had early in life.” His last days in Vienna were historically horrendous. But one look at the disturbing tempest that is Kokoschka’s The Wind’s Fiancée, Schiele’s Death and the Maiden, or Klimt’s Medicine—which was destroyed when retreating SS troops set it on fire—and you would understand that there was no chance Kandel could ever put Austria behind him.

There is a framed manifest from the Gerolstein in Kandel’s office. He points out a name to me: among the passengers on board that 10-day-long journey was Bruno Bettelheim, a Freudian psychoanalyst who studied the emotional conditions that ravaged children. For 11 months, Bettelheim was a prisoner at Dachau and Buchenwald, before being freed and exiled thanks to an amnesty declared for Hitler’s birthday. The demons of the Holocaust never left him, and in 1990 he committed suicide by pulling a plastic bag over his head. On the same ship was young Eric Kandel. The ocean air blew through his hair, as he gazed toward America with hope. The words “Free at last” swirled inside his head.