[18 March 2013]
“You’re a shoemaker and you want the product to be nice.”
Memory is the “glue that binds our mental life together,” observes neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel early in Petra Seeger’s documentary about his work and life. It’s the first of many metaphors in a film that establishes the centrality of figurative language and analogy to memory, learning, and scientific research.
Based on his 2006 memoir In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, the documentary explicates Kandel’s contributions to the discovery of the biological basis of memory and follows the scientist as he tries to understand the relationship between his past—especially his childhood experience as a persecuted Jew in Vienna—and the subject of his research. Passages from the book, read by Kandel, serve as narration for parts of the film.
In Search of Memory opens with Kandel explaining that if a viewer of the film remembers the experience later, it will be due to “an alteration of gene expression” in the viewer’s brain. Seeger then cuts to a brief scene of the scientist and his family visiting the convent in Cahors, France, where Kandel’s wife Denise, also a Jew, was hidden by her parents on the eve of WWII.
It’s a stark contrast: memory as elucidated in the empirical discourse of science, and recollection as the emotional return to a troubled past. Seeger proceeds to dismantle this dichotomy, as methodically as Kandel has mapped the function of the hippocampus and other structures of the brain. By showing that the subjects of psychology (identity, motivation, guilt) also focus the study of memory and learning, In Search of Memory embodies what Kandel calls “the big world change” in neuroscience over the course of his career: bringing psychology and neurobiology together to create “one unified new science of mind.”
Kandel’s lab at Columbia University’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute carries out the science of mind on several fronts. Some researchers study the interaction of sensory and motor neurons harvested from aplysia, a marine snail whose relatively simple nervous system and large cells make it ideal for research. Others study the brain patterns of mice implanted with sensors to determine neurological changes associated with learning.
One of Kandel’s contributions to neuroscience is the discovery of the role played by the synapse—the connection between neurons—in short- and long-term memory. Short-term memory, Kandel has learned, is the result of temporary, chemical changes in the relations among neurons; long-term memory involves the growth of new neural networks. “The chemical synapse is not fixed; it is plastic,” he has concluded; “it can be altered by activity.”
Kandel has shown that for a memory to take up long-term residence in our brains, it must be freighted with significance—for example, with emotion. This insight gets at the connection between the biological and biographical projects pursued by the scientist, who notes that his research targets the “biological basis” of the post-Holocaust exhortation to “never forget” by investigating both how and why we remember.
And here emerges Kandel the student of psychology, the man who initially went to medical school to become a psychoanalyst and who has great admiration for Sigmund Freud. For Kandel, neurobiology and psychoanalysis are both instances of “going deep.” On their visit to Denise’s school, Kandel and family search for the tunnel that served as an escape route from the school. The scientist finds a “double symbolism” in this quest; the attempt to find, and find meaning in, an emotionally rich remnant of his wife’s formative youth is, Kandel asserts, just like memory research.
Seeger shows us that Kandel’s preoccupation with the psychological implications of memory research is not idiosyncratic, but central to neuroscience as it is practiced today, and that his tendency to use analogy and metaphor to explicate his work is an essential feature of the scientific method in general.
One of Kandel’s students tells us that the most important thing he learned from his mentor is that communicating an idea is just as important as the idea itself. A number of scenes illustrate this assertion. One researcher in Kandel’s lab describes the interplay between neurons as courtship and love: “it is programmed into these neurons to find a partner,” he says, the first of many such analogies. Another researcher describes his discovery of a growth factor and its receptor as like falling in love. In a short film they made about studying Kandel’s work, Austrian teenagers liken the interplay between neurons to the Sleeping Beauty fairytale.
Kandel supplies yet another metaphor that captures his dedication, his humility, his wit, and his feeling that the best way to honor Jews lost in the Holocaust is to do the best science he can. When Kandel returns to his grade school alma mater, Yeshivah of Flatbush, in Brooklyn—where his family settled after leaving Europe in 1939—he talks with the rabbi, who asks him if he sometimes feels like he’s playing God in his research into the secrets of the brain. Kandel quickly rejects the idea. “No, no,” he exclaims. “You’re a shoemaker, and you want the product to be nice.”