The Age of Insight, by Eric Kandel

I saw this book on a high shelf in my local bookstore. (Having a sore back and being unable to bend down has it’s advantages.) Since it had a Klimt painting on its cover and the promise of the marriage of art and brain science in its subtitle, I was more than a little intrigued. In fact, I felt a warm thrill run through me, loving, as I do, serious (i.e., non-pop tart) psychology, the study of grey matter, and all things Symbolist. Even flipping through the table of contents was a joy, and thumbing the illustrations even moreso. Did he write this friggin thing for me? What the hell?

Well, it’s taken me weeks to read this big hardcover, and I’m very happy to say the book has lived up to its promise and I did not drop it on a toe. The author is a Nobel Prize winner, as it says on the cover, but I really didn’t expect such fluid prose and the fatherly leading down the – for me – unexplored paths where Freud, Klimt, and hardcore fMRI neuroscience walk in concert. My god, did I ever learn alot. I was always a Jungian (by way of Northrop Fry). I read everything of his I could get my grubby little mitts on and really didn’t read much Freud. Truth be told, I read more words analysing and shredding old Sigmund than words written by him. Now I have a serious appreciation of him (and an even greater appreciation of my ignorance, which on the best days could sink ships).

After reading Insight, I now feel thoroughly updated on what we know of the brain in the 21st century. We can now localise all the major bits of sensory input and processing, which I’m sure the U.S. military will put to great use – knowing where to clobber their enemies. A few things I thought were pretty cool:

  • Scientists now seem to have a clear handle on the mechanics of consciousness and creativity. I’m not entirely sure why that gets to me.  I suppose it’s for the same reason mapping the whole world with satellites gets to me. My inner poet really doesn’t want everything to be known. And no, I don’t have a stash. I never had stash. Oh, that? That’s not mine.
  • All that apocryphal baloney about “sleeping on it” and waking with the perfect solution to a problem? Yeah, well, there’s a very good neurological reason why it works. (Personally, I’m afraid of it getting bent if I sleep on it.)
  • Afraid of getting in an accident and losing part of your brain and never being able to play piano again? The truth is, some injuries actually release your secret savant and increase creativity. Who knew? Well, I guess people it has happened to knew. The brain-damaged rapper who got a million dollar recording contract, for instance. Which one, you ask?

I think my wife got a bit tired of me blurting paragraphs at inopportune moments. I’m sure she’s now soured on reading it herself now that I’ve spilled all the best bits. If you like science books, get this thing. If you like brain science, trip over your dog and hie thee to the bookstore. If you like art history, well, you can’t do better than this for a look at what “liking” and “art” really are at their biological roots.