Illustration for article titled Neuroscience pioneer Eric Kandel explains how Vienna and love brought him to science

Eric Kandel helped write the book on modern neuroscience. I mean that literally. If you own a neuroscience textbook, there's a good chance it's this one. You'll notice that Kandel is listed as the first author.


In other words, Kandel's reputation in the field of neuroscience precedes him. But what many people don't realize is that Kandel's decidedly scientific mind is also well-equipped to dispense incisive cultural and historical observations. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Kandel discusses the intersection of art, science and medicine in the context of his new book (The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present), and what neurobiology can reveal about the creative process.


The interview covers an impressive swath of topics, ranging from Austria's eager acceptance of Hitler during WWII, to whether we will ever find brain structures that correspond to Freud's concepts of id, ego and super-ego. We've included an excerpt from the interview here, but be apprised: those with even a passing interest in neuroscience, history, or the ruminations of a brilliant mind should really read it in full. Check it out here.

SPIEGEL: [As you write in your book, your homeland of Vienna] gave birth to a new idea of what man was.

Kandel: Yes. Ever since the Enlightenment, people thought that we were living in a rational universe. They thought that God was a mathematician, and that the function of the scientist was to figure out the mathematical rules whereby the universe was created. The idea was that God created man different from other animals, because man was rational and animals had drives and instincts. That idea of a rational man that was specially created went out the window when Darwin showed that we evolved from animal ancestors, that we have instincts, much as do animals, and that our instincts are very important. It was a much more sophisticated, nuanced, and rich view of the human mind, and this view is largely a Viennese discovery.

SPIEGEL: You're referring here to the conception of the human mind by psychoanalysis and by Freud.

Kandel: Yes, but not only. Artists and writers were also interested in the unconscious. It was, by the way, medicine that made the first steps toward modernity. Parisian medicine was outstanding in the 1800s. But around 1840, 1850, it began to decline and Austria really began to move up. Carl von Rokitansky is one of the founders of scientific medicine and systematized it, looking at what the clinical symptoms mean. The medicine we practice today, which is infinitely more sophisticated, is Rokitansky's medicine.

SPIEGEL: Why did this process take place in Vienna rather than other cities?

Kandel: Vienna is relatively small. And it had wonderful salons, opportunities for people to get together. There was a lot of interaction between scientists and non-scientists, between Jews and non-Jews, between artists, writers and scientists, including medical scientists.

SPIEGEL: You yourself showed an interest in the irrational and demonic side of man that you encountered as a child in Vienna. In an effort to understand it, you began studying history.

Kandel: Yes. If you read any of my books, they tend to have a strong historical perspective.

SPIEGEL: So why did you give up this career path?

Kandel: It's very simple: I fell in love with a woman. She taught me another truth. She was a daughter of a very well-known psychoanalyst who introduced me to Vienna psychoanalysis.

SPIEGEL: Without this woman, do you think that you would have ended as a historian?

Kandel: Undoubtedly.

Continue reading at Der Spiegel.

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