Long-Lost Lovers, by Stephen Rosen

In Leonardo da Vinci’s day and in Greek and Roman times, humanities and science were not separated into what C.P. Snow referred to as “two cultures.” Humanities, literature, and art are concerned with the nature of human experience. The sciences are concerned with the physical nature of the universe. Some see them as divorced and divided.

“Science and art are like long-lost lovers,” Alan Alda has said, “yearning to be reunited.” By promoting science communications, he is active as a matchmaker.

The Nobel laureate Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University, another matchmaker, has written a fascinating and sophisticated book, “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures,” in which he sees the divide between them as bridgeable by looking at their common overlaps. In both brain science and abstract art, one can think about processes that can be simplified, or “reduced.”

Dr. Kandel is on to something. He engaged in such simplifications when he studied learning and memory in a simple sea slug, a marine snail, in the hope that this would shed light on learning and memory in much more complex creatures — otherwise known as people. He demonstrated differences in short-term and long-term memory in important experiments he performed on the humble snail. When stimulated once, the snail’s recall lasted minutes; when stimulated many times, the snail’s memory lasted days.

Does this sound familiar? This is consistent with what happens when we learn. Repeated attempts to memorize a song or a poem or a person’s face will change parts of your brain so that long-term memory kicks in. “So if you remember anything of what you have read here,” Dr. Kandel says in his book, “it will be because your brain is slightly different than it was before you started to read.” Your neurons “spoke” to each other.

Not only do learning and memory enable us to come up with new ideas, but they also allow us to understand the world (science) and to embrace human experience (humanities and art).

It’s a giant leap to comprehend how the human mind and the neurons in the brain process art. But by examining many works of both figurative and abstract art Dr. Kandel leads us on an ambitious, energetic tour de force of how it happens. This is heady stuff.

Each of us sees a work of art differently. It’s a creative act. We interpret art in personal terms, bringing our life experiences to add meaning to a picture. This is called “the beholder’s involvement” or “the beholder’s share.” You might say that when we think we are merely observing a picture (or reality), we are most certainly drawing inferences.

“Our perception of the world is a fantasy,” according to the cognitive psychologist Chris Frith, “that coincides with reality.”

The author guides us through the lives and works of many artists who are familiar to professional and amateur artists, collectors, and art lovers on the East End: Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, and several others. Readers will be enchanted, rewarded, and maybe a bit mystified by the book’s beautiful color reproductions of the abstract art Dr. Kandel has chosen to analyze in terms of brain science.

He explains that abstract art uses “crudely depicted features [that] trigger a perceptual experience that is then richly completed by the observer . . . to create conditions that enable the viewer . . . [to draw on] unique personal experience.”

He quotes a fanciful legend about J.M.W. Turner’s unusually painted sunsets. A woman said to him, “I never saw a sunset like that, Mr. Turner,” and he replied, “Don’t you wish you could, madam?” If not true, as the Italians say, it is well invented.

Dr. Kandel concludes his fine book by acknowledging that we are “at an early stage of exploring the biological underpinnings of our response to art.”


Eric Kandel will sign copies of his book on Aug. 12 at the Authors Night benefit for the East Hampton Library, and Alan Alda will be there with “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.”

Stephen Rosen, a physicist who lives part time in East Hampton, will give a talk, “Albert Einstein: Rock Star,” at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton on Aug. 10 at 5:30 p.m.