March 11, 2006

In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind

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


From Publishers Weekly

When, as a medical student in the 1950s, Kandel said he wanted to locate the ego and id in the brain, his mentor told him he was overreaching, that the brain had to be studied "cell by cell." After his initial dismay, Kandel took on the challenge and in 2000 was awarded a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking research showing how memory is encoded in the brain's neuronal circuits. Kandel's journey into the brain spans five decades, beginning in the era of early research into the role of electrical currents flowing through neurons and ending in the age of genetic engineering. It took him from early studies of reflexes in the lowly squid to the founding of a bioengineering firm whose work could some day develop treatments for Alzheimer's and on to a rudimentary understanding of the cellular mechanisms underlying mental illness. Kandel's life also took him on another journey: from Vienna, which his Jewish family fled after the Anschluss, to New York City and, decades later, on visits back to Vienna, where he boldly confronted Austria's unwillingness to look at its collusion in the Final Solution. For anyone considering a career in science, the early part of this intellectual autobiography presents a fascinating portrait of a scientist's formation: learning to trust his instincts on what research to pursue and how to pose a researchable question and formulate an experiment. Much of the science discussion is too dense for the average reader. But for anyone interested in the relationship between the mind and the brain, this is an important account of a creative and highly fruitful career. 50 b&w illus.

From Booklist
While most memoirs merely give the reader the contents of memory, this remarkable account by a pioneering neurobiologist actually opens up the cellular and biochemical structure of memory and details the epoch-making science that has uncovered that structure. Through the doors of his own memory, Kandel revisits the Vienna of his childhood, a city recalled with appreciation for its intellectual and artistic life and with antipathy for the anti-Semitism that swept through the region in the thirties, forcing the Kandel family to flee to New York. Kandel carried a career-shaping interest in Freud with him to Brooklyn, but he soon realized that the biology of the brain could explain more about mental processes than could Freud's theorizing. Kandel recounts his own revolutionary research in establishing the molecular chemistry of short-term memory and the cellular dynamics of long-term memory, highlighting particularly the potential of his findings for the treatment of Alzheimer's and other mental disorders. But even as he outlines the biomechanics of memory, Kandel shares his personal reminiscences of the years during which he unraveled those mysteries--a daughter's whimsical fascination with laboratory snails, for instance, and his wife's difficult search for a gown for the Nobel Prize ceremony recognizing his breakthroughs. In a provocative conclusion, Kandel contemplates the broad cultural meaning of memory as he chronicles his visit to a twenty-first-century Vienna still determined to forget its complicity in Nazi atrocities. An autobiography of exceptional substance.

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