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Eric Kandel: In Search of Memory

Raven's picture

 Eric Kandel: In Search of Memory

Throughout In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, Eric Kandel describes his approach to understanding how memories are stored. While at first glance, the book might seem like a boring biography of an experiment; in the first chapters, Kandel’s captivating writing constantly keeps you wondering about the next chapter.

 Kandel’s interest in the mechanisms of memory storage emerged from his own ability to remember the traumatic events of his early childhood, prior to leaving Holocaust Vienna. Kandel writes “remembering such details of an event is like recalling a dream or watching a movie in which we play a part. We can even recall past emotional states” (Kandel 280). Like many of us, he vividly remembers his childhood bedroom. This illustrious way of remembering events which occurred long ago, prompted Kandel to investigate the mechanisms of memory storage. Kandel wonders how we can remember events so vividly and why we remember certain things and not others. Furthermore, he questions how this memory is stored and why it changes overtime. As discussed in class, if you return to your childhood bedroom, it may not appear as you remember it.

After a lesson in basic neurobiology, Kandel takes us through his journey of scientific discovery. Kandel builds upon basic neuroscience principles set forth by pioneers of the field and walks through his process of scientific inquiry to the discovery of the mechanism of memory storage. Each beautifully depicted story of experiments he and others performed, leads you to ask the next logical question. Reading the “behind the scenes” inquiry that led Kandel in particular directions is an inspiration to young scientists and students alike. The beautiful depictions of critical ground breaking experiments performed by Ramon y Cajal’s recordings of the anatomy of nerve cells to Brenda Milner’s experiments that distinguished implicit and explicit memories demonstrate Kandel’s passion for understanding memory and instill the same sense in the reader.
            In Search of Memory is relevant to our class discussions on constructions of the mind, I-functions, CPGs, and the scientific method as Kandel communicates his discovery by acknowledging these topics. While Kandel offers insight into these topics, he delves further into the mechanisms of memory storage from a biological perspective.   

Kandel on Memory as a Construct of the Mind

Kandel challenged my view of individuality and memory when he quoted Tennessee Williams, “Has it ever struck you…that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going?”( Kandel 281). The fact that memory composes our person, our individuality is striking in itself. This idea supports Emily Dickinson’s view that the ‘brain is wider than the sky’. Yet, when scientists claim memory is a construct of the mind discover that memory is a construct of the mind where neurons synapse with other neurons to create the sensation of memory, this ideas of individuality, life, and identity seems bizarre. Out class discussions lead us to question whether we do have a separate self from our brain. Dickinson’s poem proposed the brain is all encompassing. In contrast, Descartes believed a separate body and soul accounted for the feeling of self and individuality.

When Kandel jumps into the Descartes-Dickinson debate about the mind, he cites Franz Gall as the first person to make the claim that “all mental processes are biological and so arise from the brain”. Following these experiments, Wernicke and Broca showed damaged brains, have problems with behavior, thus supporting the notion of a brain as the only agent affecting behavior. This biological evidence suggested more support for the brain as an all encompassing entity rather than the existence of a separate soul and mind. However through this attempt to reconcile the feeling that we have a soul separate from our brain and the brain as the center of all that ‘we’ are comes the discussion on the I-function and CPGs. Kandel does not provide new information on I-functions or CPGs, but explains the early experiments which demonstrated the presence of these assets to memory.

Kandel on the Scientific Method

Similar to our initial class discussions on the truth of science, Kandel believes scientists should be focused on getting it “less wrong”. As we discussed, science is merely a set of observations to make a claim about something. Kandel says “science is a means for formulating interesting questions about nature, discussing whether those questions are important and well formulated and then designing a series of experiments to explore possible answers to a particular question” (Kandel 105). Science is not truth.

Kandel writes of a meeting between neuroscientist John Eccles and philosopher of science Karl Popper. Eccles proposed at theory that synaptic transmission occurred electrically, and his proposed theory was shot down by many critics, leaving Eccles in much despair. Kandel summarizes Popper and Eccles’ meeting: “No one was challenging Eccles’ findings—the challenge was to his theory, his interpretation of his research findings. Eccles was doing science at its best…Being on the wrong side of the interpretation was unimportant, Popper argued. The greatest strength of the scientific method is its ability to disprove a hypothesis. Science proceeds by endless and ever refining cycles of conjecture and refutation. One scientist proposed a new idea about nature and then other scientists work to find observations to support or refute this idea” (Kandel 96-7) Popper then urged Eccles to disprove his own hypothesis …much is learned from the refutation of his own hypothesis. This story reflects the content and construction of our conversations that we should not be afraid of being “less right”, because we learn from the various ideas and this learning from the interpretations is most important.

This book was a wonderful addition to the Neurobiology and Behavior class and complemented the class discussion well. I learned more from reading this book than reading any textbook on Neurobiology with the same information. Honestly this book has changed my approach to research and increased my appreciation for neuroscience. Although Kandel writes about the triumphs of research more than the tribulations, his stories brought the bench science to life increasing my enthusiasm for the study of neurobiology and behavior.   




Paul Grobstein's picture

Kandel, science, memory

"Kandel says “science is a means for formulating interesting questions about nature, discussing whether those questions are important and well formulated and then designing a series of experiments to explore possible answers to a particular question”"

Yep, Kandel a very good scientist.  Glad you found/were inspired by his book.  I agree that "does not provide new information on I-functions" and think that interesting as well.  His own work tells us more about how experience affects neurons, less about what goes on when our experiences of the past are constructed by neuronal circuits.  So there's space (as always) for getting it less wrong.