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The Two Cultures: Art and Science Play Nice

October 23, 2012

During yesterday’s On the Shoulders Of Giants program, painter Chris Willcox made a connection that summed up the theme of the afternoon. Willcox, who has worked extensively with Child Mind Institute 2012 Distinguished Scientist and Nobel laureate Dr. Eric Kandel, the afternoon’s keynote speaker, was discussing parallels between art and science.

“Look at the word scientist,” Willcox said. “It’s actually a fairly new word—it was only penned in 1834, by a guy named William Whewell. Most professions at that time ended with the suffix -er—the baker, the butcher, the trumpeter. The suffix -ist was fairly unheard of. So this guy was trying to group together different people exploring the world in different ways”—that is, practitioners of all the various branches of science—”and he borrowed the suffix from the word artist.”

Each of the afternoon’s presentations, given by Dr. Kandel and his protégés—Willcox, Priya Rajasethupathy, and Sonia Epstein—explored a different way that art and science interact and also mirror each other, starting with the very words we use, as Willcox made clear.

The young artist continued his comparison, illustrating key ways that art and science “aren’t that different,” insight he developed at Dr. Kandel’s lab after studying art and philosophy in colleges. “These were people who were encountering familiar problems to those I was encountering,” he recalled. “Namely, who are we? And what is the world around us?” For Willcox, both science and art are approaches to solving problems, and both are organized into layers or hierarchies. “As you get further down, the problems don’t get any easier, and they change quite a bit.”

Art and science have the “same way of solving problems,” Willcox concludes. “And this method, as you all know, is experimentation. Art without experimentation is static craftsmanship. And science without experimentation is the recapitulation of existing data.”

The rewards of curiosity and experiment were on display in Dr. Kandel’s lecture, but also in Dr. Rajasethupathy’s talk about her work on the cellular and even sub-cellular mechanics of memory. She recounted the process that led to her discovery of what she calls piRNAs, a kind of “small RNA” that appears to help regulate the chemical climate in cells necessary for learning and thus memory. On the way, she illustrated a concept that sounds as pertinent to the museum as to the physics laboratory: By experimenting with how you look at a phenomenon, you can unveil a completely new facet.

Building on Dr. Kandel’s groundbreaking work, in his lab Dr. Rajasethupathy addressed one of her mentor’s fundamental question: in her words, “How does a single neuron or a single synapse take transient information from the external environment and encode that into a stable, long-term internal representation that can then last years?” Dr. Kandel had already come up with one piece of this puzzle, called prions, and together they undertook an investigation of a newly-discovered gene group called “micro-RNAs,” or miRNAs, testing the hypothesis that memory at the synaptic level is chemically a “self-perpetuating phenomenon that can persist in the absence of stimuli.”

“As we were distracted by the micro-RNA work,” Dr. Rajasethupathy said, “we sort of stumbled on a very exciting discovery.” They went looking for concentrations of miRNAs in the sea slug Aplysia, where it “wasn’t really clear if micro-RNAs existed.” And that search turned up not only miRNAs but also “an entirely new class of small RNAs in the brain that had never been discovered before. And these were the piRNAs.”

After investigating this new discovery, the team concluded that “micro-RNAs were inhibitory constraints on the long term process, while piRNAs are in fact positive regulators in that they enhance the long term memory process.” In Dr. Rajasethupathy’s telling, experiment leads to discovery and a hierarchy emerges—one where, in Willcox’s words, “the problems don’t get any easier, and they change quite a bit.” A complex biological function as a layered artwork.

Dr. Rajasethupathy ended her presentation with a quote from Dr. Kandel: “It is quite likely that finding new interactions between aspects of art and science will continue to enlighten both fields.” Sonia Epstein, who also with Dr. Kandel, seems to have approached the parallels of science and art with this in mind, and an eye towards synthesis and mutual benefit. The daughter of sculptor and a psychiatrist, she spent summers “half the time in artist camp” and the other half “at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory learning how to dissect skate fish and catch sharks” and developed a lifelong interest in the balance of science and art.

Epstein now works at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation helping create all sorts of media that broadens the reach of scientific ideas into the culture, and the genesis of her interest in the mission is clear. But she was not always sure how she wanted to balance the two. “While I had always been attracted to the scientific and artistic cultures, each alone had never felt like enough for me,” she said. “So what really clicked for me working with Eric is the way that that work showed me how those two cultures could actually work together—how each one could enhance the other, to shape the popular culture in a new way.”

Yesterday Dr. Kandel demonstrated how this interplay could work with an grand tale of experimentation that begins with the insatiable curiosity of a Viennese physician and ends with foundational works of modern art, Freud and the birth of modern psychiatry, and a new appreciation of how we as humans communicate with our bodies and our faces.

In a wide-ranging discussion based in part on his recent book, The Age of Insight, Dr. Kandel tied medical innovations in Vienna in the late 1800s to a revolution in the depiction of the human form in the groundbreaking portraiture of three Viennese master painters in the beginning of the 20th century, Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. His story began with Baron Carl von Rokitansky and an odd convergence of Viennese rules. Everyone who died at the general hospital at the university was required to have an autopsy, and one person was required to do them all. For a great while that was Rokitansky, the chief pathologist.

“Rokitansky took extraordinary advantage of this,” Dr. Kandel said. “He felt that before one understood a disease, you couldn’t possibly treat it…The only way one could begin to understand what a physical examination means was to begin to correlate what a physician sees and hears at the bedside with what you see at autopsy.” What follows, as Rokitanksy became the teacher of many leaders in academic medicine (including Freud, Dr. Kandel points out) and “emphasized the principle that the truth is often hidden below the surface,” is a change in the concept of self, whether it is in the self-portraits of Kokoschka or the self-analysis of Freud.

By the time we get to Vienna 1900, Dr. Kandel says, modern art and modern science are already in fertile embrace. His discussion of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele was rich with detail and aesthetic appreciation but also an understanding of context. “The concerns of these artists with the truth lying between the surface or appearance of their subjects was paralleled and influenced by similar concerns with unconscious mental processes in contemporaneous medicine and psychoanalysis,” he said. “Thus the portraits of the modernists of Vienna 1900 also represented an ideal example of how artistic, psychological, and scientific insights can enrich each other.”

Perhaps Kandel’s most interesting supposition is that an anatomical pathologist was the progenitor of a sea change in how we understand ourselves, how we appreciate art—how we are human, essentially. We recommend reading the book for a more nuanced understanding—we are!

But in his introduction, he made clear that his was a reductionist approach—to focus on a narrow area of study—and Dr. Kandel’s subject is larger, and he touched on it at the beginning of his talk. Dr. Kandel was speaking not only about Vienna 1900, but also talk is an example both of how we can now level our evolving science of the mind on art and history, and how the evolving science of times past influenced the art and the events of its time.

He seems to see in the past a model for the contemporary world. “This new biological science of mind is important not only because it provides a deeper understanding of what makes us who we are, but also because it makes possible a meaningful series of dialogues between brain science and other areas of knowledge.”

After Dr. Kandel’s presentation, he introduced his protégés with an illustration that subverted the classic notion that each scientist learns from his predecessors—a cartoon of him on the shoulders of his students. This is particularly interesting considering how Dr. Kandel’s analysis of the Viennese painters illuminates and raises up the contributions of the artists and scientists that came before. In any case, his affection for his student/colleagues is clear. “So if I’ve seen further it’s by standing on the shoulders of my students. The giants are the next generation.”

Tagged with: Child Mind Institute Events, Science and Research
Harry Kimball
Harry Kimball is the former Director of Marketing and Communications of the Child Mind Institute. He helped guide the organization’s … Read Bio