In Search of Mem­o­ry: The Emer­gence of a New Sci­ence of Mind

Eric R. Kandel
  • Review
January 2, 2013
Eric Kandel’s career began, it is fair to say, with a big bang on the door. The date was Novem­ber 9, 1938, only two days after his ninth birth­day. That just months before Hitler’s Ger­many has annexed Kandel’s native Aus­tria, after a cam­paign of vio­lence and ter­ror, both­ered him not at all. The entire­ty of his atten­tion was devot­ed to a lit­tle blue car, bat­tery oper­at­ed and remote-con­trolled, that his par­ents had giv­en him on his birth­day two days pre­vi­ous­ly. Kan­del steered the car every­where in his small Vien­na apart­ment, from liv­ing room to din­ing room, under tables and in between chair legs. 

And then came the bang­ing on the door, and two Nazi police­men stand­ing on the doorstep. They gave Kandel’s fam­i­ly a few min­utes to pack up and leave, forc­ing them to move in with anoth­er Jew­ish fam­i­ly they did not know. When the Kan­dels returned home sev­er­al days lat­er, they learned that their apart­ment had been ran­sacked; gone was the jew­el­ry, gone the sil­ver table­ware, gone were the fine clothes. Gone also was Kandel’s shiny toy car.

The mem­o­ries of those days,” Kan­del writes in his new book, In Search of Mem­o­ry: The Emer­gence of a New Sci­ence of Mind, are the most pow­er­ful mem­o­ries of my ear­ly life.”

It is mem­o­ries, or, more accu­rate­ly, mem­o­ry, that even­tu­al­ly pro­pelled Kan­del to fame. Hav­ing escaped with his fam­i­ly to New York in 1939, Kan­del orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to become a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, but soon found him­self enthralled by neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy. In 2000, he was award­ed the Nobel Prize for his con­tri­bu­tion to illu­mi­nat­ing the mol­e­c­u­lar process­es through which mem­o­ry is formed.

The ques­tion of mem­o­ry, of course, is one that has pre­oc­cu­pied gen­er­a­tions of thinkers of all dis­ci­plines, from Pla­to to Proust. As it is our mem­o­ries that, to a great degree, shape our being, the under­stand­ing of the mech­a­nism of mem­o­ry— enabling, for exam­ple, the 76-year-old Kan­del to remem­ber vivid­ly that bang on the door more than six decades ago — is, as he him­self notes in his excel­lent book, one of the great remain­ing mys­ter­ies of life.”

To shed light on the sub­ject and explain his immense­ly com­plex research to lay read­ers, Kan­del deft­ly weaves togeth­er his own per­son­al and intel­lec­tu­al biog­ra­phy along­side a mas­ter­ful­ly nar­rat­ed his­to­ry of the evo­lu­tion of the sci­ence of the mind. It’s an inge­nious strat­a­gem, one that Kan­del insists is not a strat­a­gem at all.

One of the things that I think has turned out to be unplanned by me but I think some­what for­tu­nate,” he said, is that peo­ple tell me that the book has a num­ber of very dif­fi­cult parts, and what often helps peo­ple get through it is that I bring in some per­son­al his­to­ry, or some his­to­ry of the field, or some descrip­tive aspects that are easy to fol­low and that inter­rupt the flow of the dif­fi­cult argu­ments. So I think that with­out mean­ing to make it a didac­tic device, this com­bi­na­tion has turned out to be didac­ti­cal­ly useful.” 

Beyond the didac­tic ben­e­fits — Kandel’s expla­na­tions of even the most elab­o­rate of bio­log­i­cal con­cepts are lucid, and most are accom­pa­nied by clear and help­ful illus­tra­tions — inter­twin­ing the sci­en­tif­ic, his­tor­i­cal and bio­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive strands gives the work an appeal uncom­mon in books about seri­ous sci­ence. At times, Kandel’s enthu­si­asm for his own work or that of his col­leagues is so catch­ing that the sci­ence, qui­et­ly con­duct­ed in labs, appears as thrilling and adven­tur­ous as a trea­sure hunt or a safari in the wild.

And, like some great sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies, Kan­del stum­bled upon his sto­ry­telling for­mu­la almost coincidentally.

When you win the Nobel Prize,” he said, they ask you to write two essays. One is an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal essay, and the oth­er is the sci­en­tif­ic lec­ture that you give. Most peo­ple do not take the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal essay seri­ous­ly, and so they vary tremen­dous­ly in qual­i­ty, and I find that my auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal essay, which was very long, was very, very favor­ably received, and peo­ple for a num­ber of years there­after were com­ing to me, say­ing boy, to live up to that stan­dard, that’s going to be very hard.’ And I real­ized that there was more inter­est in my Jew­ish Vien­nese past than I thought, and that’s when I got the idea of putting the two ideas togeth­er, and the book is real­ly a much, much expand­ed ver­sion of those two com­po­nents of the Nobel assignment.”

In a sense, how­ev­er, the inter­twin­ing of art and sci­ence in Kandel’s book should come as no sur­prise, as his field itself, neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy, is a bridge of sorts between these two seem­ing­ly dis­parate disciplines.

That neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy is a more nat­ur­al bridge between the arts and the sci­ences, that is with­out ques­tion,” said Kan­del. Recent­ly, he added, he gave a lec­ture in Vien­na expand­ing on that very top­ic, enti­tled The Vien­na School of Med­i­cine and the Ori­gins of Aus­tri­an Expressionism.”

I was point­ing out how peo­ple like Roki­tan­sky, who was a famous pathol­o­gist, and Freud, with their inter­est in try­ing to get deep into under­stand­ing what’s going on with the human body and human mind, set the stage for peo­ple like Schiele and Kokosch­ka, for explor­ing human moti­va­tion in paint­ing. And I gave anoth­er lec­ture on reduc­tion­ism in art and sci­ence, show­ing how min­i­mal­ist painters like Rothko real­ly use the same strat­e­gy that we do, sim­pli­fy­ing exter­nal real­i­ty to under­stand it more deeply.”

The lat­ter strat­e­gy is one Kan­del knows much about. He achieved many of his insights by look­ing at the Aplysia, a giant marine snail with a sim­ple ner­vous sys­tem. By observ­ing and exper­i­ment­ing on the uncom­pli­cat­ed crea­ture, Kan­del was able to gain insight into the work­ing of a much more com­plex sys­tem, the human brain.

Choos­ing the snail, he said, was a good idea on my part, and a very for­tu­nate one. I didn’t know ahead of time that it would be such a good idea, but soon after I was in it I real­ized that this was a sys­tem that was made for me, that I was very com­fort­able with it, and that I could see things with it and do things with it that oth­er peo­ple might not. The strat­e­gy is very sim­ple, I thought; learn­ing and mem­o­ry are com­pli­cat­ed, and I would go and study the sim­plest exam­ple. That’s a con­ven­tion­al strat­e­gy with­in biol­o­gy, peo­ple just didn’t think of apply­ing it to men­tal process­es. And I thought that every ani­mal needs to learn, and there­fore Aplysia must have learn­ing capa­bil­i­ties, and since its ner­vous sys­tem is very sim­ple and very approach­able, I should be able to work out a behav­ior that could be mod­i­fied by learn­ing and see what hap­pens in the brain when the ani­mal learns. And I found that the reflex that I stud­ied, that was mod­i­fied by learn­ing, was made up of a cer­tain num­ber of cells that were con­nect­ed to each oth­er in very pre­cise ways, and that learn­ing changed these pre­cise con­nec­tions. It altered the strength of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the cells. And that was the first demon­stra­tion of how learn­ing works.”

Many more were to fol­low, and they are described in the book in detail and in con­text; among the sub­jects that Kan­del tack­les are con­scious­ness, mem­o­ry loss, sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and men­tal illness.

And yet, despite Kandel’s devo­tion to under­stand­ing mem­o­ry — he is cur­rent­ly head­ing a com­pa­ny that does work on pre­vent­ing age-relat­ed mem­o­ry loss — he is the first to admit that some­times, for­get­ting can be bliss.

A lot of things are mis­er­able,” he said, and you want to for­get about them. It’s not desir­able to retain every­thing. You want to selec­tive­ly remem­ber those things that are mean­ing­ful, and fil­ter out those things that are unimportant.”

And what is impor­tant to Kan­del the author?

One of the mes­sages that I would like to have come across is that sci­ence is fun,” he said, laugh­ing. And that you don’t have to be born know­ing that you want to be a sci­en­tist at age five, you can just fol­low your nose and get into sci­ence at var­i­ous points in your aca­d­e­m­ic life, and that it’s a mar­velous way to spend a career. I’m 76 years old. I could be, as my father would say, in Mia­mi Beach walk­ing over a shtick­le, but I have no inter­est in doing that. The rea­son I do sci­ence is because it is, next to my per­son­al life, the most plea­sur­able thing in the world.”

Discussion Questions