2006-10-25: In Search of Memory

In Search of Memory

The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2006)

by Eric R. Kandel (1929-)

I might have learned of this book from a review in Science magazine. It was described as an interesting mix of remembrance of a career and the personal background to the career. It is this, and is very interesting. Kandel begins with Kristallnacht in Vienna, when his family began to suffer from the Nazis in Austria. A tragedy at the time, the events created the circumstances that later enabled his career. Decades later, after winning the Nobel prize, Kandel returned to Austria and forced at least some there to re-examine the Austrian experience of anti-semitism.

Ch 17, Long-term Memory, p 240:

In reflecting on his genetic studies of bacteria, François Jacob distinguished between two categories of scientific investigation: day science and night science. Day science is rational, logical, and pragmatic, carried forward by precisely designed experiments. “Day science employs reasoning that meshes like gears, and achieves results with the force of certainty,” Jacob wrote. Night science, on the other hand, “is a sort of workshop of the possible, where are elaborated what will become the building materials of science. Where hypotheses take the form of presentiments, of hazy sensations.”

Ch 23, Attention Must Be Paid!, p 311:

Selective attention [a key to the difference between explicit and implicit spatial memory] is widely recognized as a powerful factor in perception, action, and memory – in the unity of conscious experience. At any given moment, animals are inundated with a vast number of sensory stimuli, yet they pay attention to only one or a very small number of them, ignoring or suppressing the rest. The brain’s capacity for processing sensory information is more limited than its receptors’ capacity for measuring the environment. Attention therefore acts as a filter, selecting some objects for further processing. It is in large part because of selective attention that internal representations do not replicate every detail of the external world and sensory stimuli alone do not predict every motor action. In our moment-to-moment experience, we focus on specific sensory information and exclude the rest (more or less). If you raise your eyes from this book to look at a person entering the room, you are no longer paying attention to the words on the page. At the same time, you are not attending to the décor of the room or the other people in the room. If asked to report your experience later, you are more likely to remember that a person entered the room than that there was a small scratch on the wall.

Ch 27, Biology and the Renaissance of Psychoanalytic Thought. P 374:

Kandel describes how psychoanalysis languished as it drifted away from any biological basis, to be reinvigorated later.

… John Bowlby … formulated the idea that the defenseless infant maintains a closeness to its caretaker by means of a system of emotive and behavioral response patterns that he called the “attachment system.” Bowlby conceived of the attachment system as an inborn instinctual or motivational system, much like hunger or thirst, that organizes the memory processes of the infant and directs it to seek proximity to and communication with its mother. From an evolutionary point of view, the attachment system clearly enhances the infant’s chances of survival by allowing its immature brain to use the parent’s mature functions to organize its life processes. The infant’s attachment mechanism is mirrored in the parent’s emotionally sensitive responses to the infant’s signals. Parental responses serve both to amplify and reinforce an infant’s positive emotional states and to attenuate the infant’s negative emotional states. These repeated experiences become encoded in procedural memory as expectations that help the infant feel secure.

Ch 30, Learning from Memory: Prospects, p 425:

Speaking of his later career and the prospects for future research:

I like the idea of applying molecular biology to link my area, the molecular biology of mind, to [his wife] Denise’s area, sociology, and thus to develop a realistic molecular sociobiology. Several researchers have made a fine start here. Cori Bargmann … has studied two variants of C. elegans that differ in their feeding patterns. One variant is solitary and seeks its food alone. He other is social and forages in groups. The only difference between the two is one amino acid in an otherwise shared receptor protein. …

Giacomo Rizzolatti … has discovered that when a monkey carries out a specific action with its hand, such as putting a peanut in its mouth, certain neurons in the premotor cortex become active. Remarkably, the same neurons become active when a monkey watches another monkey (or even a person) put food in its mouth. Rizzolatti calls these “mirror neurons” and suggests that they provide the first insight into imitation, identification, empathy, and possibly the ability to mime vocalization – the mental processes intrinsic to human interaction. …

In looking at just these three research strands, one can see a whole new area of biology opening up, one that can give us a sense of what makes us social, communicating beings. An ambitious undertaking of this sort might not only discern the factors that enable members of a cohesive group to recognize one another but also teach us something about the factors that give rise to tribalism, which is so often associated with fear, hatred, and intolerance of outsiders.

There is a lot that is interesting in this book, and it is quite well written. It only lagged when Kandel describes his involvement with biotech companies and their impact on researchers and research. Though he recognizes the advantage for developing actual therapies from discoveries, it’s clearly not very interesting to him.


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