Reductionism in Art and Brain Science

Bridging the Two Cultures by Eric R. Kandel

Neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel examines what scholars believe to be the pillars of Western intellectual life: Science and the Humanities (Literature and Art), determined to show how the divide between the two cultures might be bridged. Both fields of inquiry seek to advance knowledge and benefit humanity. Science does so by studying the physical nature of life and the universe and the Humanities by examining human experience. Kandel believes that Science and Art already share common methodologies and goals through reductionism (from the Latin reducere – to lead back). The concept does not imply limiting, but rather a heightened focus on certain aspects of a complex inquiry or endeavor. For instance, scientists might study a simple organism in order to understand the mechanism of a human problem.

The author finds the perfect example of reductionism in art in the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. These painters turned the art world upside down by rejecting traditional representational art and by reducing images to their basic elements of form, color, line and light.

Kandel goes on to explain the biological underpinnings and physiological systems involved in vision, learning and memory and how these systems impact our perception of a work of art. In detail, he explains how some systems work differently when a person views a representational work of art versus an abstract work.

Recognizing the varied nature of human perception, dependent as it is on experience and memory has practical significance for the docent/guide. The author breaks down the process in very understandable terms.

While the title is daunting and some of the technical illustrations can require study, the book is overall very readable and, at times, humorous. Kandel even dissects the phenomenon of the blue/gold dress!

The art reproductions are wonderful and underscore the author's concepts in a very enjoyable way.

About the Author

Eric Kandel is a professor in the Departments of Neuroscience, Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and Psychiatry at Columbia University. He is director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science and codirector of the Mortimer B, Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000.

 

Reviewed by Renee Reese, Docent, The Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC