Perspectives: A Perspective on Creativity and the Human Brain: “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art From Vienna 1900 to the Present” by Eric Kandel

Eric Kandel is a cognitive psychologist, neurobiologist and Novel Laureate with a special interest in art, creativity and human brain function.   His book, “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain” is a daring, insightful and detailed account of how modern brain scientists are coming to grips with the mysteries of human creativity, particularly with respect to visual art. As a Viennese, Kandel is particularly interested in unconscious, or semi-conscious elements in human behavior, motivation and emotion, and his study of Freud illuminates the book in both surprising and enlightening ways. Kandel also utilizes his knowledge of the “modern” art movement in Austria, particularly the groundbreaking work of Gustav Klimpt and Vassily Kandinsky, both of whom lived and worked in Vienna during some of their careers, in order to track both the history of philosophical aesthetics as it developed in Austria at the turn of the twentieth century, but also the history and development of neurobiology. The brain, it turns out, contains vaults, chambers, by-ways and tunnels of creativity, channeling human endeavor throughout evolutionary history into artistic “way-finding”. But, Kandel concludes, art is ultimately not only an evolutionary adaptation on the genetic level, but also a social feedback loop that helps humans model the world and society around them in helpful and emotionally satisfying ways. All of the latest research is here, presented in an comprehensive and entirely comprehensible way.

Also recommended reading on human creativity and brain science—

“Creating Minds” by Howard Gardner

“The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius” by Nancy Andreasen


 The Writing Life: Storytelling as an evolutionary adaption

Dennis Dutton, a philosopher of art, identifies two views of our responses to art…Dutton’s second, more compelling view, is that the arts are not simply a by-product of evolution, but rather an evolutionary adaption—an instinctual trait—that helps us survive because it is crucial to our well-being.

Dutton argues that we evolved as natural storytellers because of the immense survival value of our fluent imaginative capacities. Storytelling is pleasurable, he explains, because it extends our experience by giving us opportunities to think hypothetically about the world and its problems. Representational visual art is a form of storytelling that artist and beholder alike can visualize and turn over in their own minds, examining relations between characters acting in different social and environmental settings. Storytelling and representational visual art are low-risk, imaginary ways of solving problems. Language, storytelling and certain kinds of artwork enable the artist to model our world uniquely and to communicate those models to others.

Art allows us to participate in storytelling in ways that are similar to fiction. In each case, the listener or the beholder experiences the plot unfolding form a personal, internal perspective, enabling him or her to analyze relationships and events through the mind and eyes of another person.

Why has art survived over time?…Art must serve some purpose that makes it critical for human existence, even though it is not, on the surface, essential for basic survival…

By binding people together into communities, art enhanced the survival of individuals within the group. One way in which art may have unified people was by making some socially important objects, activities, and events memorable and pleasurable. Since art arouses emotion, and emotion elicits both cognitive and psychological responses in the observer, art is capable of producing a whole-body response.

The Writing Life: Creativity in General

Essential prerequisites for creativity are technical competence and a willingness to work hard, according to Ernst Kris and the psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen. For convenience they divide the remaining aspects of the creative process into four parts: (1) the types of personalities that are likely to be particularly creative; (2) the period of preparation and incubation, when a person works on a problem consciously and unconsciously; (3) the initial moments of creativity themselves; (4) subsequent working through of execrative idea.

Following the work of Gardner and Andreasen, we now realize that the types of personalities Kris was searching for—personalities that lead to a creative mind-set—are numerous and not centered on the intellect: some highly creative people are slow readers or poor at arithmetic. In addition, the creative mind-set is most commonly jot generalized but domain specific. It derives from a variety of features that are extremely important, including wonderment, independence, nonconformity, flexibility, and as we shall see, the capability for relaxation.

In Exuberance: The Passion for Life, Jamison writes:

Creative and manic thinking are both distinguished by fluidity and by the capacity to combine ideas in ways that form new and original connections. Thinking in both tends to be divergent in nature, less goal-bound, and more likely to wander about or leap off in a variety of directions. Diffuse, diverse, and leapfrogging ideas were first noted thousands of years ago as one of the hallmarks of manic thought.

Making models of the world is also the core function of the perceptual, emotional, and social systems in the human brain. It is this modeling capacity that makes possible both the artist’s creation of a work of art and the beholder’s re-creation of it. Both derive from the intrinsically creative workings of the brain. In addition, both artist and the viewer have Aha! Moments—sudden flashes of insight—that are thought to involve similar circuits of the brain.