Hannes Richter

An Interview with Eric Kandel

Hannes Richter

In Search of Memory Book Cover

In Search of Memory
The Emergence of a New Science of Mind
Eric R. Kandel
W. W. Norton & Company, New York/London, 2006
ISBN 0-393-05863-8
(available in bookstores)

Eric Kandel is known as one of the most influential neuroscientists of our time. Born 1929 in Vienna as the son of a Jewish toy shop owner, he emigrated to the United States at the age of nine to escape the Nazis. He received his undergraduate degree at Harvard in history before becoming interested in psychoanalysis and neuroscience. Since 1974 he has been a professor with the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University in New York. In 2000, Eric Kandel was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the cellular basis of learning and memory.

AI: In 2006 you published a book called “In Search of Memory - The Emergence of a New Science of Mind” that chronicles your life and research. You have dedicated your entire scientific career to the exploration of the human mind. Where does this interest come from?

I came to the United States after having escaped from Nazi Austria, and I spent my early years in high school and at Harvard trying to understand what happened in Vienna. How could people who love Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven at one moment be so terribly anti-Semitic and destructive the next? I thought I was going to do graduate work on modern European history, but I got interested in psychoanalysis during my years at Harvard. I met a woman, Anna Kris, whose parents, Ernst and Marianna Kris, were gifted young people of the Freud circle. And so I, too, became interested in psychoanalysis. I thought I would have a better understanding of human motivation by studying psychoanalysis.

I decided to go to medical school on short-term notice, where I was determined to become a psychiatrist and do psychoanalysis. I spent my summers working in psychiatric hospitals, learning about mental illness. But at the end of my medical school career, I thought that maybe even a psychoanalyst should know something about the brain. So I took an elective course with Harry Grundfest at Columbia University on Neurobiology. I fell in love with Neurobiology, and I have studied that ever since. My passion has now been on the biology of the brain and particularly on memory and how memories are formed and are maintained. So I have devoted my career, fifty years of science, to studying the biological basis of memory storage.

AI: You once said that we are all “made of memories.” What happens in our brain that we are able to remember something?

My colleagues and I have found out that when an animal learns something, there is an alteration in the communication between nerve cells and, thus, the brain changes. Nerve cells communicate more effectively with one another. There are two forms of memory - first a short-term memory, which lasts minutes or most hours, which leads to a functional change in communication. It is a transient, reversible change. But if you repeat this experience, so that it goes into long- term memory, you turn on genes in the brain. And those genes give rise to proteins that lead to the growth of new connections between nerve cells. So you have an anatomically different brain after you have learned something than the brain you had before.

AI: Why are we forgetting so many things during our ordinary day?

It simply does not go into long-term memory but stays in short-term memory. Some of it is overwritten. We have a difficult time recalling it because we don’t focus attentively, and another thing is that memory decays with time. It either has to be fantastically important to you or you have to re-experience it.


Austrian Federal President Dr. Heinz Fischer greets Nobel Prize recipient Professor Eric Kandel at a reception in June 2006

AI: During your latest research with mice you were able to reverse age-related memory loss in animals.

We found the biochemical underpinnings for certain kinds of memories, and we explored how this varies during the animals’ life. We found that when mice age, as when people age, they develop age-related memory loss. Since we knew about the biochemistry of the brain, we were able to figure out how the reversal is with drugs. Based on that, I started a biotechnology company called “Memory Pharmaceuticals” that is using drugs to try to reverse age-related memory loss. We have drugs now in various phases of clinical trials to see whether or not we can do so.

AI: How long do you think it will take until you can reverse age-related memory loss in people?

It always takes longer than you think. I would say in two or three years we will have some potential drugs for ordinary age-related memory loss. And maybe in five years we will have some significant progress on Alzheimer’s disease.

You once intended to become a psychoanalyst, and you have had a great interest in Sigmund Freud’s theories your entire life. What fascinates you about his theories?

I think that it is a very rich and detailed understanding of the human mind, the existence of unconscious mental processes, the importance of childhood experience and the role of conflicts in people’s lives. This is a very rich view of mental life and a very nuanced view of the mind that no one had before Freud.

AI: Do you think that it may be possible to verify his theories from a neurobiological standpoint some day?

Yes, that’s the hope. I think if that doesn’t happen, Freud would be seen more as a philosopher than as a precursor of science. And one would hope he would be the founder of a science of the mind. But we are not yet in a position of having a good enough understanding of the biology of the brain to tackle this problem. We see that there are unconscious mental processes, and so the fundamental idea has been verified, but the details need an enormous amount of work.

You have talked about a new science of mind, which should bring psychoanalysis and the biology of the mind together. What does that mean for the future in terms of the way we are looking at the brain?

It is about bringing cognitive psychology and all aspects of studying behavior together. I think it needs to be done in able to tackle more complicated issues and have a better understanding of why human beings behave how they do under certain circumstances. What accounts for brutality of people; what accounts for generosity; how complex memories are formed and how they are recalled; what the nature is of schizophrenia and depression. I mean there are a range of enormous problems that confront mankind that revolve around the biology of the mind. And I hope the new science of the mind will be in a better position to address them.

AI: You lived in Vienna until you emigrated at the age of nine. This year you came back to your native city in order to present your new book. Which childhood memories have you retained of this city?

Mixed. Vienna is really beautiful. It has some wonderful museums, and it is extremely nice to walk along the Ringstraße and to the outskirts of Vienna to a “Heurigen.” On the other hand I do still sense a degree of anti-Semitism in Austria that I don’t sense in Germany. I do sense a certain unwillingness, particularly among people of my generation, to speak about the history of the Nazi period. I think it’s getting better. I think the young people are much more transparent, and I very much admire Federal President Heinz Fischer. I got to know him when I received the Austrian Medal for Science in 2005, and I think he is a terrific man. But I think Austria has some work to do. I think there are very few Jews in Vienna. In Berlin there has been a major influx of Jews from the East invited in by the German government, but this is not happening in Vienna. Why do the Viennese not invite more Jews to come in?


AI: Do you detect today any traces of your Austrian origins, although you grew up and were educated mostly in the United States?

Yes, I am still enormously influenced by my European culture. I married a woman who is French, so we collect Art Noveau furniture, vases and lamps. We also collect German-Austrian expressionists like Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and Max Beckmann.

AI: You once mentioned that you never thought that you would match the intellectual virtuosity of your brother, Lewis. In 2000 you were honored with the Nobel Prize for your scientific work.

That was a fantastic honor and a wonderful recognition of the work my colleagues and I have done and of what the field represents. It was on Yom Kippur morning of the year 2000 when I was woken very early by a telephone call telling me that I had won the Nobel Prize. It changes your life.

AI: Have you fulfilled a special dream with the resources from the Nobel Prize?

I feel that a lot of my success is due to my wife, Denise. She is a fantastic person who has helped me in a variety of ways, and she has always wanted to have an apartment in Paris. So we used a good part of the resources from the Nobel Prize to buy an apartment in Paris.

AI: You have published a lot of books on neuroscience. What compelled you to give your latest book an autobiographical touch?

I wrote an essay for the Nobel Prize Committee, which consisted of an autobiography and the Nobel lecture I gave. I worked very hard on that, and my friends responded very strongly to it. They said: “Oh my God, this is interesting; we did not know this about you.” So I wondered whether or not I should really expand on this. And my autobiography is an expansion of this. It took me about four years to write it.

AI: For the first half of 2006 Austria held the presidency of the European Union. What do you think of the political “project Europe” and its future?

I think it’s wonderful. I think the unification of the European countries, the interaction between them, is economically sound and is likely to lead to greater security and a greater likelihood for peace. It also creates understanding between countries. This is a major step forward. It is that kind of thing people have been dreaming of for several hundred years. The way France and Germany have been interacting recently is quite wonderful.

AI: You have had a very exciting past and a very difficult childhood. Have you ever talked to your children and grandchildren about Austria and, if so, what did you tell them?

The truth, and one of the reasons I wrote the book, is so that they would know. My wife and I have been married for 50 years and we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary in June. So we asked our children and grandchildren what they wanted to do to celebrate. We thought we would go to a nice hotel in some exotic island, or something like that. But they wanted to go to Vienna and to Paris. They wanted to see where we were born and what our life was like. My wife was hiding in the south of France in a catholic convent during the Nazi era. They wanted to visit that convent. So that’s what we are going to do.

  • Laura Rossacher is studying Journalism and Organizational Communication at the University of Applied Sciences JOANNEUM in Graz, Austria. After supporting the Austrian Press and Information Service for three months during the summer, she is now doing an internship in Public Relations in Munich, Germany.