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Recently read: In Search of Memory

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on December 9, 2008
Tags: book_reviews

Eric R. Kandel. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind

Eric Kandel’s family was forced to flee Austria in 1938 when Hitler’s Germany absorbed the country (with the enthusiastic consent of many Austrians). He wound up in Brooklyn, in my current neighbourhood. Indeed, for a few weeks he attended PS. 217, the school across the street from my apartment building, and less than 30 metres from the chair I was sitting in when I came across this fact (accounting for vertical displacement, since we’re on the sixth floor).

From Brooklyn, he went to Harvard and studied German literature. While there, he became entranced with psychoanalysis —all the rage in the 1950s — and determined to enter medical school in order to pursue a career as a psychoanalyst. But an interest in basic research in neurology gradually took over, and he ended up studying the biological bases of the very same phenomena that drew him originally to psychoanalysis: memory, consciousness, pathologies of the mind, and the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.

For much of his career, Kandel’s approach has been what he terms “reductionist.” In order to study a phenomenon like memory, he chose a very simple organism with large neurons and simple, discernible patterns of learning and memory. Kandel’s star organism was Aplysia, a sort of very large sea snail. Kandel’s choice was disapproved of by some researchers who worried that a snail was too far removed from a human to shed any light on the formation of memories in the latter. But the choice turned out to be inspired. For it turns out that nature is, in some ways, deeply conservative. A successful technique once hit on is often elaborated upon without being completely abandoned. We are, in some limited but crucial respects, not so far from snails. And so Aplysia ended up teaching Kandel, and the rest of us, quite a bit about the biological roots of memory in humans as well as snails. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his work.

This is the fascinating and circuitous route traced by Kandel’s memoir, In Search of Memory: from Austria to Brooklyn to Harvard to psychoanalysis to neurobiology to snails and then back to humans and on to the Nobel Prize. It’s a wonderful read, filled with lucid and engaging accounts of the development of modern brain science. As is fitting for the memoir of a life consumed by a passion for science, much of the book is taken up with accounts of Kandel’s work. But there are moments of humanity sprinkled throughout, and Kandel is a fine writer when he tackles non-scientific issues. Of particular interest are his reflections on Vienna, the city he was forced to leave, the terrible toll that German and Austrian Nazis inflicted on the Jewish community of Austria and thereby on their own culture, and the conflicted, uncertain, and incomplete attempts by Austrians since then to come to terms with their treatment of Austria’s Jewish population. Highly recommended.