It’s not every day one encounters glossy images of twentieth-century abstract paintings alongside illustrations of a monkey brain. Yet this is precisely the mash-up Eric Kandel successfully presents us with in his new book, in which he seeks to reconcile the cultures of art and science. Kandel, a Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, says that our noggins fire in a special way when we look at abstract art. To prove his point, he brings neuroscience into the art museum.

A river of ink has been spilled over the meaning of the Abstract Expressionist movement, typically focusing on artists’ intentions and historical considerations. Kandel takes a different tack and asks: what does the art do to us? This has a precedent. The “beholder’s share” theory was developed at the Vienna School of Art History at the turn of the nineteenth century. Grounded in psychological principles, it holds that art is incomplete until viewed. The greater the ambiguity, the greater the viewer’s contribution. Enter abstract art, “with its lack of reference to identifiable forms,” which, Kandel writes, puts greater demands on the imagination. Abstract art forces our visual system to deal with an image “fundamentally different” from the type our brain has evolved to handle. Kandel says there is neuroscience to back that up.

The brain wants to identify what it sees.

The brain wants to identify what it sees. To do so, it utilizes a hard-wired part of the sensory–cognitive system. When we look at what Kandel likes to call figurative art, the “what” pathway of the brain is engaged. True to its name, the what pathway reacts to faces and objects; it also makes sense of spatial relationships, or perspective. This experience is called bottom-up processing, and relies on the circuitry of the visual system. We take in visual information through the retina cells and they pass messages along the optic nerve to the occipital lobe located at the back of the head. That nucleus lands at the primary visual cortex (at about the nape of the neck), where it does a 180-degree turn and runs back into the temporal lobe along the what pathway.

Visual processing on the what pathway is primal and fairly universal. It’s how we recognize things and, most importantly, faces. The brain is hard-wired to help us react emotionally to faces (and more, as we shall later see). Special “face patches” in the brain are located in the inferior temporal lobe, where much emotion-laden activity occurs.

When we gaze at a picture portraying recognizable objects, the brain processes what it sees using bottom-up circuitry. But what happens when a wall-sized Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko painting gobsmacks our retina cells? The touchstones of people, places, and things that would kick-start bottom-up processing are absent. We’ve all stood before such works and heard someone (maybe ourselves) blurt out: “What is this?” Turns out it’s not a silly question. Indeed, it could be an essential one. Abstract art provides sensory stimulation to the viewer that sparks what Kandel says is associative learning, a process in which memories are linked together and stored. Such learning is essential for human advancement and pleasure. In this way, abstract art makes the brain immediately rely on top-down processing. Learning something new is pleasurable not only because we make associations with familiar memories but also because it “stimulates our creative selves,” Kandel says. (Kandel briefly mentions that we also use top-down processing to complete our understanding of the images we see in representational art, but that is beyond the subject of this book.)

According to Kandel, neuroscience can explain why abstract art, though it lacks human imagery, can still impact us emotionally. Top-down processing lights up the parts of our brain closely tied to emotion, empathy, and memory. Such processing can place an image in a personal, psychological context, and can be used to “resolve ambiguities.” Imaging studies show that when we first look at a picture, we process only the visual information. Then higher regions of the brain go to work, to make sense of what we see. Color is a big part of this; it is bound together in the brain with brightness, form, and movement. Color, like face-patches, is processed in the emotion-rich inferior temporal lobe and hence is closely tied to emotion. And in every case, it is the beholder “who assigns meaning” to the color, Kandel writes.

Visual processing of texture is also a top-down processing job. Higher brain function areas are pinged when we view a painting by Pollock or Willem de Kooning because of the brain’s “robust and efficient mechanisms for processing textured images,” Kandel says. In addition to color and texture, the brain also instinctively looks for patterns. This is why we look for pictures in clouds or on a leak-stained ceiling. The same thing happens when we look at a Pollock painting, according to Kandel. We begin to see patterns regardless of whether Pollock painted them. This heightens our involvement: the beholder becomes a participant.

Kandel applies a reductionist theory to abstract art. He sees a similarity between the way scientists and the abstract expressionists explored their respective worlds. Reductionism comes from the Latin reducere, “to lead back,” and means to explain a complex phenomenon by examining a component on a more elementary level. For example, a scientist might study the marine snail to test nervous system theories because it is a simple organism with relatively few neurons. Kandel posits that the Abstract Expressionists were reductionists who distilled line, color, and form. They severed these elements from all traditional figurative associations through reductionism. In that process, they furthered steps taken by the Cubists to change the way art is perceived in the human brain.

Future research may explore how the brain reacts to iconography, scale, and the ennobling power of beauty.

While Kandel’s exploration of how we experience abstract art is fascinating and valuable, his cross-cultural reductionism theory gives pause. While great design often appears simple, it’s important to resist seeing abstract paintings, because of their lack of representational detail, as the equivalent of primitivism. The circle of New York Abstract Expressionists, on whom he focuses, certainly sought the universal and spiritual, as Kandel notes. But would the group, known for their titanic egos and brash identification with “advanced art,” have countenanced an analogy to the humble marine snail? The Abstract Expressionists were mature artists who achieved economy and mastery over their medium at the pinnacle of their careers.

Kandel’s theory of how our neurons fire in response to abstract art is illuminating. He notes that recent advances open the door to similar research with representational art. This is potentially exciting news. He tends to underestimate the emotive power and complexity of representational art, perhaps because it is not his focus here. Future research may explore how the brain reacts to iconography, scale, and the ennobling power of beauty. Surely there’s an intriguing top-down story to be told there, too. One looks forward to hearing more from Kandel, a most inventive scholar, now that his bridge has been solidly built.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 3, on page 66
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