Friday, June 15, 2007

In Search of Memory

In Search of Memory, the Emergence of a New Science of Mind, by Eric R. Kandel, is not what I had in mind for summer reading. I was looking for a mystery when I wandered over to the nonfiction area of my little neighborhood bookstore. Kandel's book looked interesting, was highly portable in paperback, and a possible choice for my upcoming plane trip. I knew Eric Kandel was at Columbia and was a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the mind but that was about it.

I read a few pages, overcame my belief that this one could likely be dry as dust and bought it. It turns out that Mr. Kandel is quite a writer in addition to being a great scientist. He pulled me in immediately with his descriptions of his early life in Vienna and I never got out again. From there, I was whisked into his love affair with medicine and science and the mind, not to mention real people, like his wife and children. He intertwined his love of art, music, fine wines, and good friends with his fascination with the behavior of the aplysia's cells and the biology of memory. He also managed to sneak in a chronology of scientific research on cognition and the mind from its early beginnings until today and in an understandable, extremely interesting way.

He included a poem, written by his young daughter, titled (of course) "The Aplisa." "An aplisa is like a squishy snail. In rain in snow in sleet in hail. When it is angry, it shoots out ink. The ink is purple, not pink. An aplisa cannot live onland. It doesn't have feet so it can't stand. It has a very funny mouth, And in winter it goes to the south." Kandel was clearly obsessed and his family knew it. The rest of us on the planet should be thankful for his compulsive curiosity about what was happening in the cells of the aplysia. We are also fortunate that a number of other creative scientists were beginning to think about the mind differently than in the past at around the same time so they could build on each others' work. They were beginning to realize that so many of the mind's functions are controlled by the biology of the cell. Amazing that understanding the chemical reactions in the cells of one of earth's smallest organisms has enabled gigantic progress in our understanding of what we like to think is one of the most complicated organs on earth, the human brain.

For a magnificent review, please take a look at the Neurophilosophy blog. Better yet, read the book. A great story. A wonderful life.

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