Sep 28, 2007

in search of memory

I finished a nice book today - In Search of Memory by Nobel prize winner Eric Kandel. It's partly a memoir and partly a science/history book on neuroscience.

The memoir deals with Kandel's life as a Jew in Vienna during the Nazi occupation, to his expatriation to the US, to his long career as a neuroscientist. The memoir part is useful because it helps the reader understand how he became interested in science. It also tells a remarkable story of the tremendous brain-drain (read Jews being run out of the country or killed) that occurred in Vienna, which was a bed of intellectual thought before the Nazi invasion. Much of Vienna was complicit in that drain.

It is however mainly a story of the advancements in neuroscience over the last 100 years. Everyone probably has vague memories of axons and dendrites from high school science class. This book will help refresh your memory of those topics as well as advance your understanding of the complexities of how nervous systems and to some extent human brains work. I use the word complexities apprehensively however. When all is said and done the main mechanisms controlling habituation, learning, memory, etc. are quite simple. In some ways, frighteningly so. The complexity really seems to come from the complexity of the structure rather than from the mechanics.

He talks about some of the causes of well known neurological diseases like schizophrenia, Alzheimers and Parkinsons and you begin to realize that minute changes in the brain's chemistry can have drastic and debilitating effects. This gives Kandel and the reader some hope that these types of problems can eventually be cured or at least treated. He also talks about some of these issues within the context of psychoanalysis remedies as well and you get some sense that drugs and psychoanalysis together do actually solve some of these issues.

It's hard to read this book and not think about the topic of free will and whether it really exists. When you read the news about someone going crazy and killing a number of people, it's a very emotional event that makes you angry and hopeful that the person will suffer. While reading the book though you begin to wonder how much of such a person's actions really are up to them. It seems like a tremendous amount of 'random violent' crime is probably neurological disease based.

There obviously is no great insight in how you move from simplistic mechanical systems in neurons to consciousness even though Kandel touches on the topic. There is also a well known experiment he discusses where a researcher was able to predict what his subjects would do before they did it. That's quite amazing when you think about it. The Ghost in the Machine is perhaps a ghost to his subjects but to the researcher it is a neural action potential that an be measured. There are still no real answers on these topics but it does make for an interesting read.

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