Dr. Eric R. Kandel is not only a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, but an author, an art-lover, and an unparalleled storyteller. His life, after all, is quite the story. Originally from Vienna, Kandel escaped before World War II and came to Brooklyn at the age of nine. Since then, Kandel has seen the field of neuroscience make its way to the forefront of research literature, and has moved along with it every step of the way. Kierstin Utter sat down with Kandel to discuss the brain, the arts, and what they mean to him.
The trajectory of your career is fascinating, especially because neuroscience has changed so much in your lifetime. I also know you initially studied the humanities. How did that lead to a career in scientific research?
Well, let me start at the beginning. I was born in Vienna, and I was kicked out—I left to save myself and my brother one year after Hitler took over Austria. I settled in Brooklyn, had a wonderful life there, and went to high school there.
Do you have any particularly vivid memories of that time? I imagine it was a very different Brooklyn from the one we know today.
Yes, it was very middle class. I had an awkward childhood… My parents were very supportive and wonderful. My brother, five years older, was brilliant; and being in his shadow was very difficult. Whenever I went to class, you know, “oh, you’re Ludwig Kandel’s younger brother, that’s wonderful.” It wasn’t until high school that I began to be free of that. And (laughs), I was co-captain of the Erasmus track team. It’s hysterical. And I enjoyed dating girls and I was not unsuccessful.
I was a very good student. One of the history teachers asked me, “Where are you going to college?” and I said “Brooklyn College.” He said, “have you ever thought about Harvard?” [My parents] didn’t have much money; they owned a small store. I told my teacher, and he gave me the money. My life really changed.
Then I went to Harvard. Harvard has a major called History and Literature: It combines the two—intellectual history, kind of. I was interested in how people could listen to Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven one day and beat up the Jews the next.
Then, I befriended a woman from Vienna who was at Radcliffe College—her father was a very famous psychoanalyst. He said, “if you want to understand motivation, you have to understand the mind.” He got me into becoming a psychoanalyst. So, I went to summer school between my junior and senior year and I took my first science course. In my senior year, I took the remaining three sciences courses I needed and got into medical school. I was only interested in psychoanalysis, and didn’t enjoy the sciences particularly.
I’m assuming that changed?
Well, in my senior year, I decided psychoanalysts should know something about the brain. At that time, very few people were doing neuroscience. No one at NYU was a neuroscientist. The only place in New York that had a neuroscientist was Columbia. I worked with them for 6 months—it was fabulous. I remember feeling, “this is wonderful, I could see my life doing this.”
One night, I was on a date with the woman I’m having dinner with tonight [laughs], and I said, “ I really could see doing this as a career, but I don’t have any money, you don’t have any money, I’ve got to go into private practice,” and she banged on the table. She said, “money is of no significance!” She has not repeated that phrase since then [laughs], but it was great, and inspired me to go on.
In those days, physicians were being drafted into the service; I was going to be drafted. But people who were nominated by their sponsors to the National Institute of Health (NIH) could use the NIH as a service substitute. I spent three years there and it changed my life—I learned how to do science. At the time, it was shown that the hippocampus is critical for learning and memory; and I sat back and thought, “what is the central question in psychoanalysis? It’s memory: who we are is what we learn, what we remember.” So I said, the biology of memory would be a wonderful approach to psychoanalysis.
Very few people in the world were doing it. I thought I’d record from hippocampal neurons—no one had touched those before… [W. Alden Spencer and I] discovered they had some very interesting features. But we realized—even though everyone around us was very excited that these two incompetent people had made this wonderful set of discoveries—we didn’t learn a goddamn thing about learning and memory. We decided we needed to take a more reductionist approach. He went to spinal reflexes to see if they could be modified. I thought I would go even simpler and looked around for an invertebrate animal; and since I could do intracellular recording, I looked for an animal that had not only few cells, but large cells. That led me to aplysia—largest nerve cells in animal kingdom. And I’ve stuck with it for the rest of my career.
Of course, I have to bring up Freud. I know he was an inspiration to you early on. Is that still the case?
Freud was a big influence on me. I like psychoanalysis, but I’m disappointed in it. They didn’t become empirical. Freud thought that some day biology would come along and show what’s right from what’s wrong. That’s what needs to be done. So, Freud is good. The problem has been the people after him. They’ve been disappointing.
Along those same lines, I get the sense that some modern psychologists think they don't need neurobiology, and vice versa. What's your opinion on the relationship between the two fields?
I think they’re one discipline. You can’t do meaningful biology of the brain without having behavior. So you’ve got to have good psychology. This is what I learned very early on in my study of aplysia… Most people in biology were scared to touch behavior because they thought it was a mess (but being trained as a psychiatrist, and working with schizophrenic people and depressed people, I didn’t think a reflex is very frightening). I looked for post-doctorate fellows who came from psychology. I would teach them neuroscience and they would teach me psychology. So we had very good psychology from the very beginning, and very good behavioral studies. Cognitive psychology and neuroscience are one discipline. I tell people, it doesn’t matter where you get your degree at CU—whether you’re psychology or neuroscience—you can take the same courses and have the same training.
At Columbia, despite the Core, many students seem to feel that there is a humanities/science dichotomy; that you must be definitively one or the other. But I have a feeling you would disagree, given your past.
The humanities are suffering, and I often get letters from the History and Literature Department, which used to be the most competitive and difficult to get into because you had to write a dissertation—you had to commit yourself your sophomore year. But they’re losing people now. So I tell them: It’s so influenced my life. I mean, I’ve written books and things like this. This lecture I gave last night was on my book, The Age of Insight. I would never have had the quall to write in those areas if I didn’t become accustomed to the humanities.
For the Nobel Prize, they ask you to do two things: Prepare a lecture, and write an autobiographical essay. A lot of people just hand in a CV or a spiel like that… But the first time I put on paper “Vienna-Schmienna-blah-blah” and showed my friends, they said, “wow, that’s so interesting.” So later on, I took those two things and that’s my book: In Search of Memory.
Speaking of the Nobel Prize, would you say winning the award has been the most rewarding part of your career?
It’s exceptionally rewarding, of course, but I’ve had a very privileged career. You consider that I almost got killed in Austria…it’s a miracle… The Nobel Prize is fantastic. But, escaping with my life is also quite fantastic.
What advice would you give to someone studying neuroscience?
One piece of advice that’s absolutely critical: Get into a lab. As early as you can, a lab that you really like that does a problem that fascinates you. And see if you like it. It changed my life. I never thought it was fun—reading textbooks. The older textbooks were unbelievably boring. Working in a lab is so different. You’re thinking about things, you’re gossiping, it’s a social environment. That really surrounds your work in a fascinating way.
You’re very inspiring.