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Eric Kandel

Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures - The Surprising Partnership of Art and Science

2017-18 CUSP Distinguished Speaker Series - Inaugural Lecture

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
6:00–8:00 p.m. 
Rennert Hall, The Kraft Center

Can science and art find common ground? Are scientific and artistic quests mutually exclusive? In his talk, Eric Kandel, whose interests span the fields of brain science and art, will explore how reductionism—the distillation of larger scientific or aesthetic concepts into smaller and more tractable ideas—has been used by scientists and artists alike to pursue their respective truths. Their common use of reductionist strategies demonstrates how science can inform how we experience a work of art and seek to understand its meaning. Kandel draws on his Nobel Prize-winning work studying the neurobiological underpinnings of learning and memory in the sea slug, Aplysia whose simple brain helps illuminate the complex workings of higher animal minds. He extends these findings to the complex processes of human perception, which uses bottom-up sensory and top-down cognitive functions to perceive the world and thus experience a work of art.

At the heart of his lecture is an elucidation of the contribution of reductionism to modern art’s extraordinary evolution and its pivotal role in a monumental shift in artistic perspective. Reductionism is key to the transition from figurative art to the first explorations of abstract art in the works of Turner. Kandel further explains how the New York School of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Louis, arrived at their particular forms of abstract expressionism in the postwar era. Kandel concludes with Katz, Warhol and Close, who made the most of new technologies and American pop culture to expand art’s sensual and cognitive triggers. Kandel’s lecture is designed to bring science and art into closer relation at a time when they seem to be growing farther apart.



Eric R. Kandel, M.D., is a University Professor at Columbia; Kavli Professor and Director, Kavli Institute for Brain Science; Co-Director, Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute; and an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A graduate of Harvard College and NYU School of Medicine, Kandel trained in Neurobiology at the NIH and in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He joined the faculty of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1974 as the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior. At Columbia, Kandel organized the neuroscience curriculum. He is an editor of Principles of Neural Science, the standard textbook in the field, now in its 5th edition. His previous book on art, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to the Present, won the Kreisky Award in Literature, Austria's highest literary award.  Kandel’s new book, entitled Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures, published by Columbia University Press, has just been released.

Kandel’s research has been concerned with the molecular mechanisms of memory storage in Aplysia and mice. More recently, he has studied animal models in mice, age-related memory disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine addiction.

Kandel has received twenty-three honorary degrees, and is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, as well as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London, and a member of the National Science Academies of Austria, France, Germany and Greece. He has been recognized with the Albert Lasker Award, the Heineken Award of the Netherlands, the Gairdner Award of Canada, the Harvey Prize and the Wolf Prize of Israel, the National Medal of Science USA and the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2000.

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