Monday, 30 April 2007

In Search of Memory – Eric R. Kandel ****

Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel has spent a career exploring the mechanism of memory at the level of individual cells. This book provides fascinating insights into both his work and the processes that were involved in it.
Appropriately for a book on memory, it starts with Kandel’s earliest recollections, and by far the strongest part of the whole book are those sections where he describes events in Austria, both when he was young and experiencing the Nazi regime, and when as an acclaimed adult he returned to Vienna with very mixed feelings. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book by a scientist (as opposed to a science writer) that had such strong writing as these sections have – the reader is really drawn in.
The bulk of the book goes on to follow Kandel’s career, researching the mechanisms of memory in the brain. This is generally explained in a way that the general reader can handle, though occasionally it gets a little complex. Whether Kandel is dealing with cells from giant slugs, mice or other higher animals, there is a remarkable story here that gradually unfolds of the complex mechanisms that cell-by-cell enable us both to deal with the sort of low level memory that enables us to walk or drive a car, and the more sophisticated memory that handles facts and happenings. It would have been interesting to know how Kandel felt about what had to be done to animals along the way to undertake this very important research – although few might worry about giant slugs, he quite casually refers to, for instance, opening the skulls of cats – but he never comments on this.
It is also very interesting for the observer to see how Kandel maintains his enthusiasm for Freud and psychoanalysis, despite the mainstream scientific doubts that have arisen over the last 20 years or more, doubts that have often emerged out of the sort of science that Kandel espouses. It is almost a reflection on the nature of memory and familiarity that Kandel hangs on to his enthusiasm for Freud (could it be tied in to his feelings for Vienna?) when practically every book about the mind (and especially dreams) that has been published in recent years is very down on Freudian thinking. Similarly, if you only read this book you would not get the general anti-psychotherapy feeling that comes through strongly in most science texts. I happened to re-read Carl Sagan’s superb The Demon Haunted World immediately after finishing In Search of Memory, and it was no surprise that Sagan put psychotherapy in the same position with respect to psychology, as astrology is held in with respect to astronomy. This anomaly shouldn’t be seen as a negative in Kandel’s book, but rather a revealing insight into the complexity of this human being.
There are a couple of niggles (which are the only reason this book doesn’t get our top five star rating). Firstly, In Search of Memory is too long. Some sections of it are a bit of a chore to work through. This is because Kandel has been allowed to go into too much detail about his work – it could do with a touch of trimming and clearer exposition. Secondly, there isn’t the feeling you get from the best books on real scientific processes of the dead ends and things going wrong along the way. There’s a slight feeling here that it’s the sanitised version. Of course it could be that Kandel was one of those rare scientists who got it right pretty well every time.
Overall this is a wonderful opportunity to put the work of a great scientist into context. Because the non-science parts of the book are so strong, it really gives much more than a pure scientific description of Kandel’s work ever could. It’s a tour-de-force as a popular science book by a scientist, and should be recommended reading for anyone interested in the brain.
Review by Brian Clegg