Thanks for the Memory

Eric Kandel
Eric Kandel; drawing by David Levine

1.

The human brain has been described as having the consistency of tofu or soft butter, and as being like a three-pound Brie. It has been compared to a computer, though that’s a misguided analogy since the brain does not operate through digital logic. Nor is its content—what we call knowledge—discrete. The brain is dynamic and plastic, changing in response to whatever comes its way. This is not a metaphor. Encounter something once and it is foreign to you. Encounter it many times and it is familiar. The thing itself hasn’t changed; your brain has. Experience has laid down new neural pathways. They are biochemical and electrical. They are real. Within limits, they can be observed and measured.

Looking at brains, cell by cell, is a relatively new phenomenon. When the neuroscientist Eric Kandel was a medical intern in the 1950s it hardly had been done. Nor was it Kandel’s ambition—not directly. Rather, he wanted to find the places in the brain where the ego, the id, and the superego reside. When one of his advisers, Harry Grundfest, suggested that to really understand the mind, one had to study the brain “one cell at a time,” Kandel took up the gambit. In so doing, he became, over the next half-century, one of the preeminent neuroscientists in the world. In 2000, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the cellular basis of learning and memory.

Those fifty years saw exponential leaps in the understanding of how the brain works. Concepts were worked out, like “the neuron doctrine,” that the nerve cell is the building block of the brain, and “the ionic hypothesis,” which describes how charged atoms called ions, traveling across the cell membrane, can generate electrical signals that carry information within and between tissues. New technologies that allowed doctors and scientists to see brains in vivo were invented, and the armamentarium of psychotropic drugs was developed, all coincident with Kandel’s rising career. As a consequence, his memoir, In Search of Memory, is an intimate tour of modern neuroscience. It is also a kind of intellectual joke: here is a book about the discovery of the biological basis of memory that has been written, essentially, out of one man’s prodigious recollections. To read it is to appreciate what he has accomplished.

Kandel is the author of six earlier books, including the standard textbook on neuroscience, an encyclopedic volume that contains surprisingly felicitous writing for what it is. As with that book, Kandel uses In Search of Memory as a podium, a place from which to deliver a series of lessons on the basic science of mind, but to a more general audience. As a consequence, In Search of Memory is largely an exercise in translation, and there is a limit to how much of Kandel’s native language, a patois of cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, neurology, psychiatry, pharmacology, and…


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