2022/Apr/02 Postcards from Far Awhen

Postcards From Far Awhen

By Cynthia Peng


I.  The Age of Wonderment: The Magic Flute

Stephansplatz Square

The author and her brother, Stephen, wandering about in Stephansplatz square


I fell in love with the instrument that I’d play for the rest of my life when I was nine years old on the streets of Vienna. A woman wearing an exquisite gown wielding a silver flute was playing the most ethereal melodies. I didn’t know it then, but in time this instrument would give me years of treasured experiences, friendships, mentors, and memories. My family had traveled to this city that summer for a conference my father attended on the neuroscience of pain. It is only so fitting that the trip whose purpose was spurred by man’s curiosity to understand and lessen a negative somatic symptom planted a seed in me to swing the pendulum in the other direction and create positive aesthetic experiences. I also didn’t know that one day as a doctor, I would also be treating pain, albeit the type not exclusively caused by nociception alone. In that moment though, my world was this tonality, and I was the Queen of the Night in the mystical opera that Vienna created.


II.  The Age of Anxiety: Garden of the Gods


Belvedere Palace

The author sits alone, ruminating amongst the vast treasures of Belvedere Palace


My second visit to Vienna came after freshman year of college, at a time when my underdeveloped prefrontal cortex was marinating with the gusto and fervor that characterizes late adolescence. Just a semester prior, I first became aware of the world of neuroscience. Like neuronal signals firing, the solo excursion was stimulating. At the Ericksonian stage of identity vs role confusion, I forged out on my own – solitary, unencumbered. I was still fully entrenched in my fascination with the musical life of the city, but the engrossing world of brain and behavior was a new frontier. At the Josephinum Medical Museum, I examined the products of academic medicine’s first anatomical dissections: harp string-like exposed nerves and the gossamer floating brains in jars.

In time, I would appreciate how the mechanisms of low-level visual perception at the retina would give rise to form, color, depth as elucidated by the primary visual cortex, which would then traverse like weary travelers at their native shore to higher order sensory integration areas, roping in their neighbors Amygdala and Hippo-campus for a person to have affective reactions to transcendent moments. In time, I would appreciate how dopamine facilitates our most profound aesthetic experiences for some and wreaks perceptual havoc for others. In time, I would appreciate that science and medicine would serve as complementary endeavors alongside the study of music.



III.  The Age of Insight: Corpus Callosum

The Hoffberg

The author and her partner, Steve, at The Hofberg.


I traveled to Vienna for the third time the summer before medical school with the man I would one day marry. A pianist himself, Steve took a lesson from a local conservatory grad student, his fingers dancing over Czerny etudes and Liszt rhapsodies. Later, we attended a performance at the Staatsoper, where it was surreal to imagine that more than a hundred years ago, the Austrian composer/conductor Gustav Mahler himself stood at the podium as music director. The famed Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is widely known to be a musical love letter to his beloved Alma, who upon receipt, immediately understood its wordless expression as a proposal of love. Years later, Steve would do the same, but with a waterfall.

At the Leopold Museum, I surveyed the art of Kokoshka, Klimt, and Schiele. Their styles were a world apart from my personal preference of the Hudson River School, with its depictions of the lush and distinctly Americanized manifest destiny. I was reminded that I was an American in Vienna, that I was a guest who was afforded the privilege to gaze upon the works of these preeminent Viennese artists. I mused upon the gaunt and geometric figures of Austrian figurative painter Egon Schiele. In a few short weeks, I would be starting medical school and taking a scalpel to an eerily reminiscent cadaver in the first semester of anatomy lab.

No longer innocently naive, I also walked the city with the gravitas of knowing the discrimination, destruction, and death that took place here that the Austrian-American neuroscientist Eric Kandel himself had experienced and wrote about. Earlier that year, I attended a talk in person in which he promoted his new book on the rich cultural life of pre-war Vienna and spoke of his family’s subsequent escape from Nazism. Later, in psychiatry residency, I would learn about holding two opposing dialects in conjunction with one another; the sublime and the shameful, the wonderment and the wasteland.

The corpus callosum is depicted in imaging studies as a swath of dynamic, dancing fibers – its job to connect and synthesize. In a similar manner, the city of Vienna has given me common themes that run throughout my own metaphorical longitudinal fissure. It has been the neurogenesis of my most treasured avocation, aided in synaptic plasticity for my vocational transformations, and ensured the long-term potentiation of my relationship. It is only now that I appreciate how primeval I am on the Dunning Kruger curve, and a lifetime of studying the art, music, and medicine of this city won’t be enough.


About the author:

Dr Cynthia Peng

Cynthia Peng is a resident of the Brigham & Women's Psychiatry program. Her academic interests lie at the interface of the mind and the medical humanities, particularly music.  Check out her music-in-medicine channel on soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/musicismedicine_cne and be sure to follow Dr. Peng on Twitter @cynthiaspeng and LinkedIn