How Art Changes Your Brain

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The auditorium is predictably packed. Dozens of physicians, psychologist, and psychoanalysts sit on the floor in the aisles, and the entrance door cannot close completely with the bodies bulging out from it. Today’s presentation is entitled: “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present.” Although the presenter, Nobel laureate Eric R. Kandel and most of the listeners are medical professionals, the topic of the presentation is not strictly medical. Rather, it is a lecture on art history. The speaker is a Columbia University professor, director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, senior investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a researcher in the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University. Although Kandel dedicated only 10 of his 60 allotted minutes to the topic of desire and its neurological networks, a Kandelian minute of knowledge takes five minutes to unpack and 1500 words to explain, hence this article.

“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” by Gustav Klimt

Kandel is an ardent researcher in the fairly young discipline of neuroaesthetics. The profound feelings of joy and exuberance that we experience as we look over a Monet landscape, or a Fellini film, or when we hear a Beethoven symphony, were once debated in circles of artists, art critics and historians, but have now bled into the fields of psychology and neuropsychology, as scientists like Kandel have learned what should have been so obvious: Not only can aesthetics bring out our most powerful emotions, they can permanently affect our neural functioning, and even explain why and how artwork affects us the way it does.

We begin with the question: Why would someone pay $135 million for a painting? Prior to 2006, no one had, until Ronald Lauder came along. Mr. Lauder, an American philanthropist, businessman, and art collector purchased “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” a 1907 painting by Gustav Klimt. The son of Estée Lauder, Ronald used his enormous net worth estimated by Forbes at $3.8 billion — to pay more for a painting than any other person or organization had in history.

ART AND THE SURVIVAL INSTINCT

Upon hearing Kandel quote the cost of the painting, a lady near the middle of the auditorium, obviously struggling to understand how a painting could fetch such a price shouts out, “Art does not seem necessary for survival — so what is its purpose?” One school of thought answers her question this way: After the Big Bang, our particular neighborhood of the universe was able to sustain the building blocks of matter in increasing levels of complexity. It moved from the quantum physics of quarks, to proton-neutron nuclei using electromagnetism to attract orbitals of electrons to form atoms. Those atoms congealed into the chemistry of molecules, which gave rise to amoebic biology and several eons later, the evolution of the human brain. As the theory goes, we used our big brains to create space-traveling vehicles, disease-curing drugs, and not the least of all, art.

Kandel chooses to go another way to answer the woman’s question. He believes that art did not pop up during our brain’s evolution like language and reading. Rather, it has always been in us, a part of us from the beginning. It is not an acquired trait, but an instinct, and as such, must be necessary for survival. “The arts,” Kandel believes, “encode information, stories, and perspectives that allow us to appraise courses of action and the feelings and motives of others in a palatable, low-risk way.”

And so, we unfold the first leaf of our triptych answer. Kandel implies that Ronald Lauder spent so much on “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” at least partly because he may have felt it was connected to his survival. A filamentous thread of history weaves together Lauder with the painting. “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” was owned by the Bloch-Bauer family before they fled Germany in 1938 and the painting was confiscated by the Nazis. Until Lauder came along, it had been on display at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna for years, until a 2006 declaration by the Supreme Court of the U.S. deemed the painting as stolen property. The family sued the Austrian government and an Austrian arbitral tribunal awarded them the painting along with four others in 2006.

Lauder, himself of Jewish ancestry, had a place in his heart for art confiscated from its original owners during the Nazi occupation and sought to open a gallery in New York City, dedicated to early 20th century art from Germany and Austria. When the work was awarded to the Bloch-Bauer family, Lauder, who had maintained close contact with them throughout a seven-year restitution battle, executed a private treaty purchase that would bring the work to his gallery.

In this sense one might say that Lauder did not merely desire Klimt’s masterpiece, he needed it.

This painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a sugar company owner, was reunited with the family after almost 70 years, finally coming to rest in Lauder’s hands. He completed its story, and in a very real way, the story of over a dozen million Jews around the world. But this time around, the story would be told safely from the walls of the Neue Galerie at 5th Avenue and 86th Street in Manhattan.

ART AND THE DOPAMINE REWARD SYSTEM

Vienna, Austria, the long-time home of the painting, was not an accidental location. Lauder visited there often with his mother Estée Lauder as a child, and the cosmetics company which bears her namesake maintains an office in Vienna today. Ronald Lauder eventually rose to become the U.S. Ambassador to Austria, and intensified his connections to its capital city by helping found the Lauder Business School, where he currently serves as its president.

The Klimt work was also not the first piece of extravagant artwork purchased by Lauder, who has managed the Commission for Art Recovery at the World Jewish Congress. Since leaving his Congress post, Lauder continues to champion restitution to Jewish heirs. One might say it provides him with a certain sense of satisfaction. We do not know how many works of art Lauder has rescued and returned, but we do know that a particular stolen work eluded him for almost 50 years.

Lauder had first seen Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” when he was 13 years old, during a trip to Vienna with his parents. Enamored by the work, he would visit the painting whenever he could on subsequent family trips. When the painting was auctioned, Lauder seized the opportunity to reunite with Adele. In doing so, he opened the second triptych leaf, revealing the role of the brain’s reward system in the acquisition of material things.

While flashing slides of brain images, Kandel explains that if he were to show one of us a photo of someone we loved, our dopamine levels would increase measurably.

More interestingly, if he showed us a photo of someone we love, but who rejected us, our dopamine levels would go even higher. In the latter scenario, he explains, Adele is that which Lauder desired for so long, but could not have. Acquiring the painting, even at a world-record price, would make Lauder feel better. A bit counterintuitive, but since the speaker had in his lifetime turned down a Harvard psychiatry chairman appointment and accepted the Nobel Prize, one would be wise to give him the benefit of doubt.

When James Olds and Peter Milner first electrically stimulated the brain’s reward center in 1954, they trained rats to self-administer brain pulses by pressing levers at rates exceeding one hundred reward responses per minute. A decade later, Aryeh Routtenberg and Janet Lindy demonstrated that animals would choose reward stimulation over food and water, and moreover, that the reward system was insatiable, with the animals seldom stopping to rest.

ART AND THE BEHOLDER’S SHARE

Lauder’s connection to Adele can perhaps best be explained by the “beholder’s involvement,” first described in the nineteenth century by Alois Riegl. A Viennese art historian, Riegl contended that art is incomplete without the viewer’s emotional engagement.

“In fact,” says Kandel, “sometimes instinctively, sometimes more consciously, artists play with perception’s variables in keen acknowledgment of the viewer’s active role.” Kandel, citing yet another Viennese art historian named Ernst Kris, asserts that excellent art “elicits both a conscious and unconscious process of recognition in the viewer, who responds emotionally and emphatically to the image in terms of his or her own life experiences and struggles.”

Perhaps, by applying the “beholder’s involvement,” we can better understand why Ronald Lauder spent such an exorbitant sum. The painting engaged his survival instincts and the brain’s reward system.

From parallel scientific and artistic explorations, “the gain for neural science is clear,” Kandel writes. “One of the ultimate challenges for biology is to understand the brain’s processing of unconscious and conscious perception, emotion, and empathy.” And just as an understanding of anatomy served Leonardo, discoveries about the workings of perception and emotional response “are likely to influence artists and give rise to new forms of representation,” beyond the introspective leaps that Surrealists like René Magritte took in trying to grapple with irrationality.

One might wonder why the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology is presenting an art history lecture on Viennese art: Eric Kandel, a Viennese Jew who fled to Brooklyn, New York in 1939 after Hitler’s annexation of Austria; like Lauder, Kandel is a collector of Gustav Klimt’s art — visibly, our inquiry into Kandel’s predilections has us once again within the reality of the “beholder’s involvement.”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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