Modern neuroscience first emerged in the late 1800s, and our interest, both lay and scientific, on how our brains work has increased exponentially since.

George W Bush declared the 1990s the ‘Decade of the Brain’.

This month, the current US President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to map the human brain.

It is not surprising that we humans are so fascinated by the workings of our most invisible organ. Our brains are unique to our selves, and largely define who we are. Yet, an understanding of how they work, what the relationship is between the brain and the mind, continues to elude. Much public and scientific consideration is ongoing, however, snippets of which now regularly appear in the press, whetting our appetites with the tantalising prospect of answering questions on who we are, and what makes us think and behave as we do.

One such journalistic piece appeared in The New York Times this month- What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art (

The writer of the article, Eric R. Kandel, challenges us to consider what we can learn about the mind by examining how we view art.

Kandel focuses on the modernist school of art in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, and the three defining artists of the school, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, who ‘sought to depict the unconscious, instinctual strivings of the people in their portraits, but each painter developed a distinctive way of using facial expressions and hand and body gestures to communicate those mental processes.’

These artistic efforts – explorations of the idea that truth lies beneath the surface – were mirrored at the time in the world of psychoanalysis. Freud, who trained at the Vienna School of Medicine pioneered the practice of using psychoanalysis to explore the subconscious, which ran in parallel with similar explorations by the Austrian modernist painters in their portraits.

Kandel draws our attention to this era in terms of how it addressed the question of how art and science might be brought together. The importance of the viewer in the artistic process arises, and with it the notion that art is by definition incomplete without the observer’s involvement and contribution.

‘Art is inherently ambiguous’, and thus we all have different interpretations of the same image. We interpret as individuals because the brain is ‘a creativity machine, which obtains incomplete information from the outside world and completes it.’

How we respond to art depends on our own previous and unique experiences, and what our brains remember and store, and also what connections they make. As we look at a picture, we use several interacting systems to analyse and experience what we ‘see’.

Our brain’s representation of faces is particularly important when we see and respond to portraits, as our brains devote more space to reading faces than to any other visual analysis.

We may ‘see’ with our eyes, but we experience, and each of us differently and uniquely, with our brains…