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

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

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Fascinating autobiography which weaves together a story of remarkable life of a Nobel prize winner, an account of historical developments in neurobiology, a very accessible presentation of the basic tenents and speculations on the future of neuroscience as well as an excellent insight into how the science is done. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: April 2007
Publisher: W W Norton & Co Ltd
ISBN: 978-0393329377

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When I went to study psychology, I was motivated by an unspecified but strong desire to learn how the human mind works: how reality is transformed into our perception of it, how we form judgements, attachments and beliefs, how we love and hate, how we think. Not very surprisingly, I learned nothing of the sort. Instead, I was shown, on one hand, a number of theories and frameworks more or less helpful in understanding the workings of human psyche on a general, abstract level: personality theories, social psychology concepts, cognitive models and so on. On the other hand, we studied the anatomy and basic physiology of the nervous system, we cut half heads of frogs and watched them jump in demonstration of the role of spinal cord, we also learned about neurological disorders, from stroke damage to Alzheimer's and epilepsy.

Developments in science of last 50 years or so bring the heady promise of bringing closer and possibly integrating the two approaches: the cognitive science of large-scale theoretical models and the precise, reductionistic in the best sense of the word, knowledge of the neuro-physiology. They come together in the modern neuroscience which started with understanding the brain, neuron by neuron and which ultimately might lead to understanding the mind that is the brain's creation.

In Search Of memory is a strange and wonderful book, which in one volume of not particularly immodest proportions includes an autobiography of an eminent neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate, a brief history of developments in neuroscience form its 19th century beginnings up to almost now, including vignettes of people who did the work, and most of all, a presentation of the author's research and the most important understandings in the area.

These strands are interwoven together in In Search Of Memory and form a surprisingly seamless whole. What I found particularly interesting was the fact that Kandel came to neuroscience from the humanities side: he went to Harvard to study history and literature, got interested in psychoanalysis and via the medical school (in those days in the US psychoanalysis was, which always seemed bizarre to me but which has a certain logic, considered a medical subject) got involved in the neuro-physiological research: first with a naive idea to find where the Freudian id, ego and superego were located, and ambition which later on developed into the idea of understanding brain function, one cell at a time.

Because of this background, Kandel does an excellent job of explaining the attractiveness of psychoanalysis to the student of mind in the 30's, 40's and 50's; and because of that he refers to the psychoanalytical ideas throughout the book: his emotional attachment to the psychodynamic framework is evident, and for many readers, especially American ones or coming from the humanities background, it might provide a meaningful connection to the main subject of neuroscience Kandel writes about. For me the attempts to show that psychoanalytic paradigm is still capable of generating interesting ideas and is not as intellectually dead as it perhaps should be, were getting bit tiresome at times, but it's probably the expression of my own bias.

Kandel's story doesn't start with the start of his research or with any of the pioneers of neuroanatomy: it starts with his childhood in the 30's Vienna and a very personal description of the remarkable Viennese culture of the time and its collapse after the Nazi's ascent to power and the Kristallnacht. This account itself makes the book worth reading: for its clarity and simple but memorable account. As befits a person with a background in psychoanalysis, Kandel sees the roots of his fascination with mind and memory in his own childhood memories and experiences, although he's well aware of how fortunate he himself and his family were to suffer comparatively little and to manage to leave before the WW2 started and forge for themselves a successful life in the US. This is also probably why he's rather unflinchingly positive about the social status quo, both of American academia and in general.

The largest middle section of the book interweaves the autobiographical and the scientific, while the purely autobiographical returns in the last two chapters of In Search Of Memory, where he describes the receiving of the Nobel prize and his more recent visits to Vienna combined with attempts to elicit from the Austrian establishment some acknowledgement of Austria's role in the Nazi project, and specifically the anti-Semitism which was much stronger in Austria than in Germany proper (after all both Hitler and Eichmann were Austrian). To be quite honest, I think that however much the private story of Eric Kandel's life achieves a certain completeness because of the inclusion of these two chapters, the book itself would probably be better without them: particularly the Nobel section was very reminiscent of a Hello magazine feature and even mentioned his wife's gown! It's entirely forgivable considering how much of an honour and recognition the Nobel brings to a scientist, but nevertheless I would have preferred if In Search Of Memory ended with the fascinating chapter on the chances that neuroscience had of exploring (and ultimately solving) the problem of consciousness.

Kandel doesn't have literary pretences, but writes in a natural, accessible but precise way. It is a bit naive kind of writing in the personal story parts, but comes to its own when relating the science. I suspect him to be an excellent lecturer and even better seminar-leader.

The best parts of the book were undoubtedly the ones devoted to Kandel's research work and the basics of neuro-physiology. His own professional development mirrored (and was very much an important part of) the development of neuroscience as such, and his exposition of the subject is excellent. Clear, engaging, and to use Einstein's words as simple as possible, but not more, it should be accessible to anybody with some memory of a secondary-school level knowledge of biology and it benefits from showing the content while presenting the history of the science, including portraits of the scientists. Kandel's reporting of his own research is truly exemplary: he describes the thought process as much as the starting point and results, he's never patronising, but he explains and repeats things a lot, he shows not only whats, but also hows and what fors, and most importantly, so whats of neurobiological research. Anybody who ever doubted why and how the study of giant marine snail can contribute to understanding of the mind should read In Search Of memory.

With its unfailing enthusiasm expressing palpable joy of doing science combined with a cultured wisdom of somebody who achieved a pinnacle in his profession and happiness in personal life, Eric Kandel's book provides an insight into the mind of the scientist, and a very good introduction to the science he's been practising while including a background picture stretching from 30's Vienna to modern US academia. Highly recommended.

John Brockman edited What is Your Dangerous Idea? is an extremely stimulating collection of essays bridging the science and art divide in the creating of what's been known as The Third Culture. Richard Dawkins' A Devil's Chaplain gives another intimate insight into an outstanding scientist's mind while presenting some content of his science. And Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct shows how study of language has contributed to the developments of cognitive science. Finally, though not reviewed by TheBookBag, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! is the most entertaining if occasionally vaguely disturbing autobiography of a scientist I have ever encountered.

Our thanks to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

You might also appreciate The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz.

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