Save a few mandatory classes in high school, I’ve avoided the hard sciences in the same way Frankenstein’s monster avoided fire. Science: bad. But recently I found an “in”, thanks to Dr. Eric Kandel, a renowned neuroscientist who has detailed the biological processes involved in learning and memory. In the past few months, the Nobel Laureate has co-moderated Charlie Rose’ Brain Series, which invites leading researchers to discuss the intricate workings of the human mind. With his sharp intellect, easy laugh, and righteous bow tie, it comes as little surprise that the 81-year-old Kandel has been dubbed a “rock star of neuroscience”. He renders complex ideas accessible, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
Petra Seeger’s In Search of Memory (Auf der Suche nach dem Gedächtnis), screening at New York’s IFC Center until 26 January, is based in part on Kandel’s 2006 autobiography of the same name. A loose collection of talking-head interviews, fly-on-the-wall observations, and dramatic re-enactments, it jumps back and forth in time, depicting Kandel’s childhood in ‘30s Vienna and his present life as a Columbia University professor.
In his autobiography, Kandel cautions the reader about the difficulty of “trac[ing] the complex interests and actions of one’s adult life to specific experiences in childhood,” but he realizes that his memories of Vienna have shaped him, personally and professionally. In the film, Kandel recounts that he was just eight years old when the Germans occupied Austria, and he was devastated when the Austrian people embraced anti-Semitism. Expelled from his school along with the other Jewish children, Kandel and his family had to evacuate their apartment, which the Nazis then ransacked. He and his older brother were sent to live with family in Brooklyn, and his parents later followed.
Kandel writes, “The bewilderment, poverty, humiliation, and fear I experienced that last year in Vienna made it a defining period of my life.” Seeger accompanies him and his wife, son, and grandchildren on a trip to Vienna and the South of France. Kandel tracks down the storefront where his father sold toys before the Nazis took control, noting that the doors are just as he remembered them. The current owner is so honored to meet Kandel, and she promises never to change those doors. In another stirring moment, Kandel’s wife, Denise, reunites with the French nun who kept her hidden from Nazis during the war. Most often, Seeger wisely lets the events unfold before the camera (the reenacted scenes from Kandel’s childhood can be distracting.)
Back in the States, Seeger follows Kandel on his lecture circuit and into his lab at Columbia University, which houses his beloved Aplysia, the snail he used to conduct much of his memory research. Here he shows how advanced brain-imaging devices illustrate in glorious color the synaptic connections between neurons, but just as satisfying is the sight of Kandel wresting apart a plastic model of the brain to give the viewer a quick tutorial on the hippocampus, the structure involved in long-term memory storage.
His hands-on approach is one reason he is a terrific educator. At the New York screening of In Search of Memory. Kandel answered questions from the audience. When a viewer asked what could be done to stave off memory loss in old age (an affliction that we learned will affect 60 percent of us, in forms both benign and destructive), Kandel recommended regular physical exercise, social engagement, and the pursuit of new intellectual challenges.
If this advice is familiar, the film shows that Kandel practices what he preaches. At 81, he swims laps in the university pool, plays tennis (and still has game!), travels abroad, and adds to his collection of Austrian Expressionism (He is currently writing a book about the insights of the artists Schiele, Klimt, and Kokoshka into the unconscious.) In Search of Memory isn’t just a depiction of an extraordinary life. It’s a prescription for how to live.