College Quarterly
Summer 2007 - Volume 10 Number 3
Reviews In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind
Eric Kandel
New York: W. W. Norton, 2006

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The evolution of big brains in our species has produced a most remarkable effect. Despite the pernicious influence of Descartes, who so rudely distinguished between mind and body, and consigned other living creatures from elephants and dolphins to our standard and bonobo chimpanzee cousins to the category of machines, we are certainly not the only animals that think. As far as we know, however, we are the only the only organisms that think about thought. This is not, moreover, a merely modern development. We, or at least the more spirited among us, have been deeply engrossed in questions such as the nature of human consciousness and the neurological processes at work when we exercise our rational capacities, daydream, remember, experience emotion, plan for the future and perform all the activities that can, with greater or lesser precision, be called thinking. Speculation on such matters has been a preoccupation of philosophers since Plato was a pup. Only recently, however, have our big brains devised the technology needed to investigate rigorously the physiology of the brain, the neurological connections that link our cerebral cells to our senses and thus to the external world. Computerized Axial Tomography (CAT-scans), positron emission tomography (PET-scans), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other clever probing devices now let us look at what our brains actually do when we think. Pharmacology allows us to play interesting games with our thoughts and to modify mood swings, suppress what we are pleased to call dysfunctional patterns of thought and alter some elements of our behaviour. In fact, everywhere we choose to look, scientists from molecular geneticists to cellular biochemists are busy attempting to make our processes of comprehension comprehensible.

For most of all (and for almost all of us who are not either formerly trained in some aspect of biology or, in the alternative, fail to meet the standards of compulsive autodidacticism), the work of these scientists of the human soul are ever so slightly scary. Whether we simply retreat from exposure to very difficult technical discourses – perhaps explaining our reluctance in terms of the dominance of our right-brain aesthetics over our left-brain analytics – or, whether we are philosophically fearful that neurological investigation might promote the kind of biochemical reductionism that would render the entire concept of the soul problematic and therefore unceremoniously dump us into a domain of abject materialism, most of us shy away from what is, in fact, probably the most exciting and profound bite out of the apple of human knowledge that has been taken in the past century or, perhaps, ever.

For the more adventuresome among us, a helping hand is plainly necessary. Though we may never do more than scratch the surface, we can certainly do worse than to expand the consciousness of our consciousness by becoming aware of the kinds of things that bright people in white lab coats are doing in the exploration of the human psyche. To offer us assistance, we should be thankful that there are researchers available who are also excellent writers as well as engagingly enthusiastic and even unapologetically joyful practitioners of their trades.

One exemplar is Eric Kandel. A Nobel Prize-winner (2000 Physiology/Medicine), he has lived and has now publicly reflected on an extraordinary life. Born in Vienna in 1929, his family fled the Anschluss and wound up in Brooklyn, New York where he graduated from the Yeshivah of Flatbush and went on to become an undergraduate history major at Harvard. Other influences – notably the Freudian psychotherapist parents of a college girlfriend – nudged him toward the study of the unconscious, which soon turned into the attempt to understand memory through the explication of the relationship between biology and psychology.

The result, Search for Memory, is many things. It is a primer in the science of the human mind, but its deft treatment of topics such as neurotransmitters, protein kinases, ion channels and neuroendocrine cells of the hypothalamus is so beautifully intertwined with the story of a powerfully personal intellectual quest that we assimilate the science with relative ease and, thus, are led artfully into what may be unfamiliar territory.

Anyone whose prejudices incline toward the Frankenstein model of empiricism run amok will be gladdened to learn that an open invitation awaits us to begin to see how inquiry into the nature of our very selves is not so much daunting as it is profoundly rewarding and immensely humane. The false dichotomy between the “two cultures” of the arts and the sciences has stunted our growth for too long. As people confronted by fate with unprecedented civilizational choices and consequences, it behooves everyone of a humanistic temperament to accompany Eric Kandel on his journey into the workings of the mind and into the main synagogue in Vienna, to which he returned in September 2004. There, during the observance of Yom Kippur, the presiding rabbi invited the professor to come forward and open the curtains of the Ark that holds the Torah scrolls. “My eyes filled with tears,” he says. “I froze and could not bring myself to do it.”

The next day, he reports, he encountered an eighty-year-old urban geographer who matter-of-factly described her perceptions of the events of 1938 and 1939. Listening to her explanation of how “the Jews controlled everything – the banks, the newspapers,” and how “they were simply squeezing every penny out of these impoverished people,” Kandel literally screamed at her mindless recapitulation of seventy-year-old propaganda. It was only one of three reported conversational epiphanies in that month alone.

To have lived Kandel’s life is something few of us can imagine. To be able to weave together science and history – both personal and political – is a talent that escapes most of even the most brilliant minds. Search for Memory is therefore a rare and precious gift. I urge attentive readers to receive it with gratitude, and to enjoy it thoroughly. Greatness is a scarce commodity, and ought not to be ignored when it presents itself humbly to those of us willing to benefit from its presence.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology