Mind: Have you ever found it hard to imagine yourself, your personal identity and memory as made up of molecules and the firing of neurons?
Kandel: No, I like this idea. Some people think that finding out about the biological mechanisms behind our mental world takes the mystery out of it. I never felt that way. When you find out how Austrian expressionist Kokoschka scraped the paint onto the canvas with his finger, does that knowledge make his art less interesting? I don’t think so. It is the same with the mind and body. Knowing that the heart is a muscular pump pushing the blood in our vessels doesn’t make the heart less wonderful either.
Mind: How do you think brain research techniques might seep into everyday life? Do you think the brains of suspects in court or even job applicants might one day be routinely screened?
Kandel: That should not be allowed in a democratic society. And the same holds true for DNA or fingerprints or any other kind of private biological information. The government has no right to that information. But this should not prevent us from developing powerful methods to study the mind and brain. Everything can be misused. It is society’s job to ensure that it is not.
Mind: What do you think about brain enhancement, an area that is quite familiar to you?
Kandel: Yes, I helped start a company to try to develop drugs that can improve memory. At the moment there is nothing that has been proved both effective and safe in people for that purpose, although many companies are working toward this goal. Cognitive enhancement should be good for people who have trouble learning and remembering, say, because they are old. I would not recommend that my grandchildren take such drugs, however. There is a much better way for them to improve their minds—and that is to study!
Mind: Do you think brain research will change our culture and the way we think of ourselves?
Kandel: Slowly but surely it will. It is beginning to do so, as the notion that every mental act comes from the brain becomes common knowledge. The mere fact that most people are no longer [mind-brain] dualists is a major cultural advance.
Mind: One last question: If you were granted one wish, what would it be?
Kandel: I would like to know how some memories persist forever. How do you remember your first love experience for the rest of your life? Neuroscientist Kausik Si, then a postdoctoral fellow in my lab, and I discovered a protein called CPEB that has the very interesting characteristic of self-perpetuation. That might be a clue to how memory is sustained over long periods. But we don’t know for sure yet.
Note: This article was originally published with the title, "Speaking of Memory".
This article was originally published with the title Speaking of Memory.