“In Search of Memory” by Eric Kandel

In Search of Memory
A Good Mystery Novel

Kandel tells the story of how fascination with memory has led him to a life-long search for the biological underpinning of memory and consciousness. It’s part autobiography and part textbook, but reads like a good mystery novel. I could hardly put it down until I finished it. His writing is very fluid and concise, and he inserts figures at just the right junctures to illustrate and summarize the concepts. I learned many things in several fields that fascinate me, psychoanalysis, molecular biology and neurobiology.

Humorous and Revealing

Kandel’s accounts of his personal life, though relatively rare compared to those of his research activities, are also humorous and revealing. I burst out laughing when reading about how he and his wife turned from progressive parents to disciplinarians after being forced out of their shared bed by their screaming son and lying on the floor for ten minutes, and how he and his colleague from Columbia, both opera addicts, sneaked into the Metropolitan by bribing the ushers and he broke out in a cold sweat “periodically” for fear of becoming headline news. (Incidentally, both of them won the Nobel Prize later on).

The Way to Do Science

1. A Complete Perspective

It is abundantly clear that Kandel knows the history of the various theories in the fields of his interest. “I find it extremely helpful to get a complete perspective, to learn what earlier scientists thought about it. I want to see not only what lines of thought proved to be productive, but also where and why certain other directions proved to be unproductive.”

2. Reductionist Approach

He uses a reductionist approach in his work, choosing a simple system to study, a giant marine snail Aplysia. “I wanted an animal with a simple reflex that could be modified by learning and that was controlled by a small number of large nerve cells whose pathway from input to output could be identified. In that way, I could relate changes in the reflex to changes in the cells”. This approach is validated by the principle of conservation, i.e., biological mechanisms/processes are conserved between simple invertebrates and more complex mammals.

3. Insight into What is Important

“Even though I still felt myself inadequately trained in some areas, I proved to be quite bold in approaching scientific problems. I did experiments that I thought were interesting and important. … I had found my voice.”  “I sensed myself developing taste, distinguishing what was interesting from what was not — and among the things that were interesting, I also learned what was doable.”

4. Collaboration with and Input from Others

“I had many moments of disappointment, despondency and exhaustion, but I always found that by reading the literature and … looking at the data … and discussing them with my students and postdoctoral fellows, I would gain a notion of what to do next. … When I tackled the next problem, I would immerse myself in reading about it.”

Links:

  1. Transcript of Eric Kandel’s Nobel lecture
  2. Video of Eric Kandel’s Nobel lecture
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