In Search of Memory

Years ago, in college, I happened to grab the book, In Search of Excellence, translated in Chinese in Taiwan. Once I opened the book, I was caught by the power of the ideas and the beauty of the language. I was inundated with the ideas. I was thrilled by the book.

Later on, I tried to find the same book. I saw another translation, but this time reading was not the same experience. The elegance of the words and ideas was lost. I guessed it was because of the translation. Now I have an original version in English, and I could not start reading it. Maybe I am anxious, am afraid not to have the same experience of being overwhelmed by the book.

So I bought the book of Eric Kandel, the 2000 Nobel laureate of medicine or physiology, In Search of Memory, his autobiography. I saw it must be a great work, one of the best popular science writings of the year, according to some reviews. Holding a high expectance, I decided to wait till I have a few free days.

And just as I expected, books like this should only be read continuously. No intermittence. No stop. Finish it as if to watch an action movie. In this way I read this book in 4 days.

Eric Kandel wanted to become a historian during his Harvard time, then he turned his interest to psychoanalysis under the influence of his girl friend’s parents, and wanted to practice it, that was why he came to medical school, with a big yet naive question of localizing the ego, id, and superego in the brain. He had the chance to do some research in the last year, when he repeated other’s experience and listened to the bang! bang! bang! of the action potential. The first success of research changed his life projectile, and he could not work long as a psychiatrist. He applied for a job in NIMH and learned anything about memory and mind. Lucky for him, the famous patient H.M. was known at that time.

He then realized that it is better to use reductionism in his search for memory. He wanted to have a simple and big nerve cell to study on. He found the aplysia, or the sea hare, a snail that can be one feet long. What he found about the inter- and intra- neuronal communication, the electrical and biochemical ways, have already printed in every current neuroscience textbook. With the knowledge base in my mind, it made the reading much easy for me. Still, it was fascinating, as if the detective is telling you the inside story of their decisions, how one hypothesis leads to another, how their actions are diverted by new clues, etc. Even the answer is already known, the listeners can still feel the intensity and emotional fluctuations of the detective.

And which textbook of neuroscience is as readable as this personal account of science exploration? This is his emotion, his feeling, his thought, his life, of the past over 50 years of active research. The textbooks are blank and insipid; they cover everything but nothing is emphasized.

As I read the book, I could not help thinking of my research on stuttering. It seems that right now, science depends on the analytic, reductionist method. So to study memory, Eric Kandel first looked into synaptic communication. Even when he studied memory on life, he did it on Aplysia and then genetically modified mice. And he only tried to study the feeling of fear in the animal kingdom. What about human language? What about human language fluency? I don’t think there is any possible animal model for my research. No place for Zebra finch, nor for apes, bonobos, etc.

I need to keep thinking of it. Time may not be a problem. If Eric Kandel could have fun working with the sea snug for a few decades, sure I will have more fun working with human in a longer time.

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