Dia's Reviews > In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind

In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel
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Dec 30, 08

Kandel begins and ends his memoir/neuroscience primer with bold declarations of faith, that consciousness itself, as well as (and of perhaps even greater import) the unconscious processes deduced by psychoanalytic investigations, can be accounted for entirely via molecular and cellular activities. The book is therefore a great education and challenge for those who are interested in the problems and possibilities of reductionism. Kandel's work, for which he won a Nobel prize, shows that the simplest forms of learning do have molecular and cellular correlates in simple animals. It seems premature, though, to get excited about reducing higher cognitive abilities to the neural level, and Kandel does acknowledge some major scientific and philosophical problems with reductionism, but mostly he remains optimistic. (Thus I was surprised to read that he once cautioned a colleague [rival?] against pursuing the question of consciousness -- it seems to go against everything he did and all that he explicitly recommends in the final chapter of his book!)

Some of the interesting threads Kandel weaves throughout this memoir include his childhood in Nazi Austria and his later, surprisingly recent, efforts to help Austrians acknowledge past atrocities; the brief histories of neuroscience he gives each time he begins describing a new topic of research he pursued; his unapologetic involvement with the biotechnology industry; and the many brief but vivid and gracious portraits he offers of his colleagues. Thankfully, his writing is clear, as well.

I would have liked to have learned more about Kandel's own experience with psychoanalysis. This is not a tell-all memoir, nor should it be, but some discussion of his own analysis might have helped the reader understand why Kandel remained allied with the tenets of psychoanalysis long after many reductionists would have discarded them. It might also have helped the reader understand why Kandel made some of the career moves that he made, important moves that seem inexplicable as the book now stands; for example, one professor told him to look to the cell for an understanding of the psyche -- and so he did, for the rest of his life. Without some sharing of his own analysis, Kandel deprives the reader of a clear understanding of why he became a reductionist, really -- other than that he just really enjoyed research, and research implies reductionism.

On the other hand, it probably is best that he didn't air his inner dynamics -- and he has plenty to say without all that.

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