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Jan. 08, 2010

Eric Kandel’s Quest: In Search of Memory

by Karen A. Frenkel

Click to enlarge images
kandel1[Credit: Angela Radulescu, flickr.com]

In Search of Memory, Petra Seeger’s documentary portraying Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel, is a manifestation of the associative quality of the human mind. It is a masterfully cut film that toggles back and forth in time.

Neurobiologist Kandel shared the Nobel Prize in 2000 in Physiology or Medicine for showing how memory is encoded in the brain’s neuronal circuits. He also showed that we harbor long-term memories because of changes in the genes of brain cells.

The film is named after Kandel’s 2007 biography: In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. The documentary intermingles footage from events in Kandel’s Columbia University laboratory, his career, interviews, lectures, family life, and trips to Vienna where Kandel lived before World War II until age nine, and Brooklyn where he grew up.

The cumulative effect is that viewers sense how deeply Kandel’s scientific quest is enmeshed with scars he bears as a child refugee. In one segment, for example, he explains his early work on recording axons firing in a hippocampus. In another, he returns to his father’s shop in Vienna, where he chats with the current owner who claims to be honored to meet him.

In a particularly excruciating sequence, Kandel walks through Vienna’s Heldenplatz, where 200,000 people welcomed Hitler. Kandel describes the brutal actions Austrian Jews endured starting that day. Then the viewer hears a shriek over the archival footage. Seeger cuts to a closeup of an eye. Two more screams.

As Kandel describes research in his lab on traumatic memories, the film shows that the eye belongs to a male student test subject who is undergoing an MRI. The purpose of the experiment is to document the lasting effect of traumatic memories. The student is shown an open circle as he hears the recorded scream. Then, the MRI reveals changes in the student’s brain when he sees the open circle without hearing the scream. He has been conditioned to perceive the scream whenever he sees the circle, even when he hears nothing.

“All I can do is the best science I can,” says Kandel, who laments those lost in the Holocaust, including people “smarter than I.” He is resilient and jovial despite his close knowledge of the horrors people can inflict upon one another. He remembers how scary it was to flee Vienna with only his 12-year-old brother and to not know where his parents were for many months. Then, in a search that parallels his Vienna expedition, he revisits the Brooklyn neighborhood where he and his brother reunited with their grandparents in 1939. He jokes with old-timers and asks if they remember his father’s haberdashery shop. He visits his apartment and alma maters.

Yet Kandel’s memories never paralyze him. If anything, they seem to have propelled him.

Because he narrates his story, I wondered about Seeger’s decision to produce and direct re-enactments of Kandel’s childhood Vienna memories. After all, these are intimate recollections. In one reenactment, Seeger shows a young actor playing Kandel who has just received a remote control toy car for his ninth birthday. Two Nazis walk in on him and his mother and order them to leave. Kandel, 70 years later, tells us that when they returned later, their home had been ransacked—even his toy car was gone.

I asked Kandel how he felt about those segments and if they matched his mind’s eye. “I felt very awkward about it,” he said. “The fact that my role was played by a young boy and my mother by an actress––I wasn’t happy with that.” Although uncomfortable with parts of the film, Kandel praises Seeger as an expressionist artist who amplified aspects of his personality and his family most interesting to her. As a result, “certain aspects of my character emerge more profoundly in the movie,” he says, “They are absolutely real, but I don’t laugh 90 percent of the time and I’m not that Jewish 90 percent of the time.”

One of the film’s most triumphant and moving moments is when Kandel elegantly bows to the King of Sweden and members of the Nobel committee. Click here for his Nobel prize speech. Had he just conducted “the best science,” Kandel’s contribution would have been impressive. But he went on to write his biography, participated in this film and is now writing another book about a Viennese salon where scientists and artists shared ideas.

I asked Kandel what drives him to keep working when he could sit back and relax. Some very successful Holocaust survivors I have known have indicated that they wanted to show the world that Hitler did not win, that European Jews are still here.

Kandel simply said, “I do it because it’s fun.”

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About Karen A. Frenkel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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