According to Nobel laureate and neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel (a keynote speaker at ANFA2016), the central challenge in science of the twentieth century is to understand the human mind in biological terms. The possibility of meeting that challenge opened in the late twentieth century when cognitive psychology, the science of the mind, merged with neuroscience, the science of the brain. This brought about a new biological science of the mind that allows us to investigate a range of questions about ourselves: how we perceive, how we remember, and what is the nature of emotion, empathy, and consciousness. This biological science of the mind is important because it not only combines the deeper understanding of who we are but makes possible a series of dialogues between brain science and other disciplines, such as architecture—a key focus of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture’s mission.


In his book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, Kandel looks to Vienna in the early twentieth century as an example of the cross-disciplinary dialogue that developed between art and the then nascent field of psychology and how this dialogue propelled the development of each field. During this time in Vienna, Sigmund Freud had begun developing methods of psychoanalysis to delve into the unconscious minds of his patients, which greatly influenced the work of modern art being produced during this period that became known as Vienna 1900. This movement consisted of work by only three artists—Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele. Each artist developed distinct ways of depicting facial expressions and bodily postures to communicate insights into the mental processes at play within the subject—a departure from traditional modes of representation.

Mada Primavesi 1912, Gustav Klimt; Self Portrait With Crossed Arms, Oskar Kokoschka; Self-portrait with orange cloak 1913, Egon Schiele

Mada Primavesi 1912, Gustav Klimt; Self Portrait With Crossed Arms, Oskar Kokoschka; Self-Portrait With Orange Cloak 1913, Egon Schiele

At this same time, Alois Riegl from the Vienna School of Art History began to more formally look at this collision between art and psychology. He was convinced that the discipline of art history was under threat because it was too anecdotal and not founded on hard science. It was during this time he developed a theory known as the “beholder’s share.” Within this theory, he asserted that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. It is the viewer that interprets and adds meaning to that which is seen depending on his/her own prior life experiences and memories.

This idea was elaborated upon by the next generation of art historians: Ernst Kris and Ernst Grombich. According to Kandel, “Kris shifted the emphasis of psychoanalytic art criticism from Freud’s psychobiography of artists to an empirical investigation of the perceptual processes of the artist and the beholder.” This new generation argued that art is inherently ambiguous, and this ambiguity elicits both a conscious and unconscious process of recognition in the viewer. The brain receives incomplete information about the world around it and completes it based on prior experience.


But an interesting phenomenon begins to occur when considering different types of images and artwork. Abstract paintings lend themselves to the highest degree of variability in interpretation, while portraiture tends to elicit far more alignment in viewer interpretation. This is due to the fact that the brain is highly adept at analyzing faces, both in terms of facial recognition and the communication of emotion. Even with today’s technological advances, computers still struggle with facial recognition, yet most of us do it effortlessly. Our brain devotes more space to reading facial detail than to any other object. And because our brain contains specialized cells that respond powerfully to exaggerated facial features, we’re particularly adept at interpreting caricatures and even interpreting features when they are upside down.

The brain is a master of facial recognition, even when a portrait is distorted. Mona Lisa, 1503 Leonardo da Vinci

The brain is a master of facial recognition, even when a portrait is distorted. Mona Lisa, 1503 Leonardo da Vinci

In portraiture, multiple areas of the brain are activated, which analyze things like contour, motion, and empathy. Through these responses, the viewer forms a theory of the subject’s state of mind. This is thought to be due, at least in part, to the activity of “mirror neurons.” Signals from these cells allow us to perceive the actions of others as if they were our own.

Kris’s and Gombrich’s studies of ambiguity led them to conclude that the brain is essentially a creative machine—that is, it generates internal representations of what we see in the world around us. This perspective was essentially a modern interpretation of Kant’s theory that sensory information allows reality to be invented by the mind. Images in art, just as all images, represent less reality and more the viewer’s perceptions, imagination, and expectation. The same can be said of three dimensional spaces, such as the built environment. Thus, beauty is not so much in the eye of the beholder but the brain of the beholder.

  • Garrett Jones

    “Abstract paintings lend themselves to the highest degree of variability in interpretation” – Would it be fair to say that abstraction is more stimulating to the brain than realism, as it would require the more neurological engagement to interpret or perceive?…