Eric R. Kandel
In Search of Memory
In Search of Memory is Eric Kandel's account of his life as a scientist studying the workings of the brain. As well as giving details of his own investigations he includes the relevant scientific background, thus making the book a useful resource for learning about this subject.
The life of a scientist
Kandel was born in Vienna in 1929 - how and why he moved to the USA is looked at below. He started his career intending to become a psychoanalyst, but constantly felt that he needed to know more about neurobiology to understand what was going on the brain. There was a conflict between looking at the brain in terms of higher level functions and the more reductionist strategy of looking at it in terms of individual cells. In the end the second of these won out, with Kandel devoting himself to full time neurobiological research, but always with an eye to understanding the higher level functions of the brain. Sometimes this seemed over ambitious and inadvisable to his colleagues, for instance using the marine snail Aplysia for the study of memory. This creature has just 20000 neurons, and some thought that using an invertebrate with such a small brain couldn't tell you anything useful about human memory. However, Kandel showed that it was possible to study habituation, sensitization and conditioning in such a creature, which are all important features of higher animals. Thus he emphasises how as a scientist it is sometimes important to take a 'leap of faith' - that is to follow up an idea despite the fact that many think that it won't work. Kandel went on to study the molecular basis of short-term and long-term memory in mice, and his work had important implications for treating human illnesses such as schizophrenia. In the year 2000 Kandel was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine.
The progress of neurobiology
The book doesn't just describe Kandel's work, it also summarises the work of others in the subject such as Freud's psychoanalysis and Cabal's principles of neural organisation. I feel that this approach - part autobiography, part description of the basics of the subject - is a good way to introduce the reader to a subject without it feeling like reading a textbook. Kandel describes work that he built upon, such as that of Andrew Huxley studying the action potentials in axons. As the book proceeds he looks at how biologists have tried to tackle more challenging problems, such as that of the basis of consciousness. He also describes the effect that the biotechnology revolution had on the subject - suddenly molecular biologists were in great demand, and able to earn high salaries.
This book is not just about science though. Kandel was a child a Jewish family in Vienna in the 1930's. Although the elected government rejected the union with Nazi Germany, when Hitler's troops marched into Austria, rather than meeting with hostility they were largely welcomed by the populace. The anti-semitism in Vienna became intolerable, and two days after Kandel's ninth birthday, in part of what became known as Kristallnacht, the Kandel family were evicted from their apartment. They were later allowed back, but most of their possessions had been taken. After a few months they had to leave Austria, and went to the United States where they started a new life. One thing which Kandel mentions, which I found particularly interesting, was that some people had seen what was coming, as well as the likely consequences for Vienna, such as Hugo Bettauer in his book The City Without Jews
When Kandel visited Austria after the war it felt strange to see the apartment which should still belong to his family, but he was starting a successful career in the USA and did not feel he should try to highlight this injustice. As time went on though he realised that Austria had never really come to terms with what went on during Nazi rule, and he began to campaign for it to be acknowledged. His winning of the Nobel prize was an opportunity for him to do this, as indeed is the writing of this book.
The autobiographical approach helps to make the science more accessible, although it means that the book is not really suitable for those wanting an overview of recent neuroscience - its more suited to those wanting to see how our understanding of the brain has progressed. For this reason I don't see it as a probable winner of the General prize of the 2007 Royal Society Prizes for Science Books
. What the book does well is to illustrate the two sides of the study of the brain - the psychoanalytic approach and the more reductionist approach of biology and chemistry, and to show that these may at long last be becoming reunited.
More reviews of In search of memory