Reflections on In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel

by B.J. on 6/23/2008 02:45:00 PM 0 comments Print this post

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I'm not very far in what I think is a career towards the brain and mind sciences or arts.

Spent most of undergrad criticizing the sciences in a minor that I thought would be devoted to just that.

But here I am, 2 years later, needing to learn it...

I bought the book In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel because:

a) I had been given a 2nd Barnes & Noble Giftcard thanks to my friend Nancy
b) I figured I would probably take a class in auto repair...(or just rent a book from the 'brary)
c) I wanted something that would encourage my interest in memory studies
d) I didn't want something that I felt comfortable with and could read in an entire day

Yes, I've figured out something specific...I like the brain...and specifically I like memory.

Memory, because of its multifacetedness.

Short-term working memory has implications for intelligence, which is what I've always been interested in. Long-term memory shows what really lies deep within ourselves. Memory is a reflection of what we give meaning to, what we place importance on. Highly emotional, highly subjective states are what we remember most, because they are packed with meaning, and ultimately that's what we go on.

Overall, I didn't understand a lot of the biological language, but certainly, I became more interested in learning about them. I was interested in the insights he had into the science profession, the mind. Generally speaking, it's stuff you've heard before in the public discourse...our brains are plastic, you can learn a lot no matter what age you are, just in more detail.

On the book's interesting points:

1) Interesting stuff he said about the work of scientists.

First was a comment on scientific research work. He often described those he held in esteem as "creative", as if they were artists, rather than neurological or molecular biologists.

"There are scientists...who are very strong technically but who do not necessarily have the deepest insights into the biological questions they are studying (68)."

Then he mentioned the motviation of scientists; they are no different than any other human beings.

"If pure scientists were motivated by curiosity alone, they should be delighted when someone else sovles the problem they are working on---but that is not the usual reaction. Recognition by their peers and esteem come only to those who have made original contributions to the common stock of knowledge.(68)"

Scientists have a need to prove and validate themselves just like any other human being. However, the specialized, high-level language they use to describe their work, their findings, etc. makes it appear as if they are disconnected from the regular world.

2) On Learning: "Different forms of learning give rise to different forms of memory." (198) I have no clue as to what he's referring to here, but it could be interesting some day.

3) On Synapses and Learning: He mentions the strength of synaptic connections as being the key to learning.

Very important chapter in the book of neuro-bio for unbelievably moronic wankers.

"We found that learning leads to a change in the strength of synapctic connections---and therefore in the effectiveness of communication---between specific cells in the neural circuit that mediates the behavior.(200)

Strength---the long-term effectiveness of synaptic connections---is regulated by experience. This view implies that the potential for many of an organism's behaviors is built into the brain and is to that extent under genetic and developmental control; however, a creature's environment and learning alter the effectiveness of the preexisting pathways, thereby leading to the expression of new patterns of behavior.(202)"

He connects the idea that we have built-in knowledge to Immanuel Kant as opposed to John Locke's tabula rasa.

4) On Synapses: "Synaptic connections between two neurons can be...strengthened or weakened---by different forms of learning. Thus habituation weakens the synapse, whereas sensitization or classical condition strengthens it (204)."

So from this it sounds like habits make you have less synaptic connection because the synapse grows in itself, which means weaker connections between neurons, which means less likely to associate with another thing, which means that your habit becomes more engrained and exaggerated.

In contrast, being sensitized to something means stronger synapctic connections between neurons, which means more likely to associate with another thing, which means that your sensitization and association becomes more engrained and exaggerated.

In conclusion, associative and explicit learning arises from sensitization, while implicit learning arises from habituation.

5) On Neuro-bio: "Long-term memory required the synthesis of a new protein (212)." As opposed to the electrical charges that keep firing from neurons.

6) On Science and Evolution: Evolution does not have any higher purpose than its immediate adaptation for something.

"Evolution does not require new, specialized molecules to produce a new adaptive mechanism" (234).

...The Biochemical actions underlying memory did not arise apecifically to support memory. Rather neurons, simply recruited an efficient signaling system employed for other purposes in other cells and used it to produce the changes in synaptic strength required for memory storage.

7) On Evolution and Neuro-bio: The stuff that makes us what we are...our genes are ALSO subject themselves to the environment in which they live (264).

8) On Memories: A characteristic of age related memory loss is the inability to consolidate long-term memories (266).

9) On Synapses and Memory: The growth and maintenace of new synaptic terminals makes memory persist (276).

10) On Perception: Sensation is an abstraction not a replication, of the real world (Mountcastle via Kandel 302)

11) On the Hippocampus: Hippocampus is concerned with perception of the environment and represents a multisensory experience (308).

12) On Dopamine: Blocking dopamine blocks the stablization of the spatial map in an animal (313).
Dopamine seems like the chemical for explicit learning and memory whereas serotonin represents the chemical for implicit learning.

13) On the Amygdala and Hippocampus: "Damage to the amygdala, which is concerned with the memory of fear, disrsupts the ability of an emotionally charged stimulus to elicit an emotional response. In contrast, damage to the hippocampus, which is concerned with conscious memory, interferes with the ability to remember the context in which the stimulus occurred. (342)"

14) Depression compromises the memory (361).

15) What science lacks are rules for explaining how subjective properties (consciousness) arise from the properties of objects (interconnecte nerve cells) (381).


1) On learning: As he was talking about studying analogs of learning, I was thinking about how people in general, learn. I think at the most ideal level, we learn by figuring out meanings. And then once we "learn" that it means something, we commit it to memory.

He mentioned habituation, sensitiation, and classical conditioning as the basis or most primordial form of learning.

2) On Habituation: Then I began thinking about habituation in my own world. The cycles of the world. I began thinking about the habits of people in the housing developments. What were their habits? What are the habits of the people in the middle and high classs? How did they develop them? What was the geography and environment that forced them to exhibit those habits that they did have?

3) On Sensitization: Then he mentioned sensitatization, and I began thinking about that in my own world. "After hearing a gun go off, a person will show an exaggerated response and will jump when he hears a tone or senses a touch on the shoulder (169)." Essentially, the gun going off acts as a sign and/or a symbol for someone to elicit a response.

4) On Brain studies of the past: I was curious about how this idea ever made sense in American Education in the 1950s:

"We were taught that the map of the somatosensory corex discovered by Wade Marshall is FIXED and IMMUTABLE throughout life." When and why did they think that it was fixed and mutable (216)? Was that informed by religion?

5) On Hippocampus and Spatiality: I also wondered about the hippocampus and spatial information that he mentioned(282).

6) On Intelligence: I was wondering how this fuses into Jeff Hawkins theory of brain and mind in his book On Intelligence.

7) On Fear: Fear is the easily most detectable emotion across species (339). It seems as though this is the emotion that what we give most the meaning to, and so we respond accordingly. It's really a disjointed event from anything were used to, so were likely to give a response out of the ordinary.

He brings in a dose of the breakthrough psychologit William James:

"We do not experience fear until after we have run away from the bear. We first act instinctively and then invoke cognition to explain the changes in the body associated with that action." (340)

Essentially, what he says is that emotion happens afterward, after an event. After the event is finished we build meaning off of that emotion via language expression which is then encoded into our memories.

8) On Learning: I began thinking of the social/asocial aspects of learning.

Learning is a very social activity, and that social activity is one way we build meanings. Learning in isolation is the most fruitful, but it's very difficult because we don't have the benefit of other people affirming your correctness in a belief or whatnot. You're forced to come up with your own meanings, definitions, labels for things and events which might be valid, but might not be recognized by anyone else.

Example: I watch a bunch of NBA basketball, but since I don't really have cable, it's often over the internet via international TV where they're speaking some other language other than English. So I don't watch a lot of basketball in English, which is good.

I don't have annoying commentators like Jeff Van Gundy telling me, indoctrinating me, on how unathletic, but intelligent the whiteboy Kirk Hinrich is, I just see what's on the basketball screen and make meaning out of what's happening all by myself. Therefore I learn what's happening in isolation, relatively speaking vs. other fans. I gain my knowledge of the game by my own observations, interpretations, and analysis. I "learn" what's happening basically on my own.

Realizing that I can learn either socially or asocially kind of annoyed me. Institutions seem to have a monopoly on social learning and will charge the hell out of you just for that. If you're not learning via an institution (and paying at least 20 dollars a unit), you feel like you don't know any avenue to learning what you need to learn.

The library is there, but it's limited and you still wouldn't know where to look.

But I digress.

9) On the feelings of disjointedness vs. fluidity: From Leo Tolstoy: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (349).

From this quote, I became concerned with the idea of disjointedness in the unhappy family and explicitness vs. fluidity and implicitness in the happy family. Everything seems to be a disruption for the unhappy family whereas, everything seems to work in harmony for the happy family.

The discourse about the unhappy family, and explicitness triggered personal memories of the kids in the housing developments yet again. What types of disjointedness have they experienced and how have they dealt with them? I would think a quality of disjointedness towards long-term ventures, not because it's innate, but because it's been learned.

10) On Working Memory: "When normal individuals are challenge by a task that requires working memory, metabolic function in their prefrontal areas increases dramatically (354)."

Working memory seems to be a tool of social moderation --- they say "intelligence" is just working memory, and prefrontal areas with which it is associated with are associated with planning and judging.

Doubts and Questions:

1) On Kandel's Observations and Reductionist Methods: I wondered if Kandel just colored in stereotypical sexist interpretations in his interpretation of results for the differences between male and female brains.

"He [Some scientist named O'Keefe] has found clear differences in the way women and men attend to and orient themselves in the space around them. Women use nearby cues and landmarks. Thus when asked for directions, a woman is likely to say, "Turn right at the Walgreen's drugstore, and then drive until you see a white colonial houe on the left with green window shutters. Men rely more on an internalized geometric map. They are likely to say 'Drive five miles north, then turn right and head east for another half mile.' Brain imaging shows activation of different areas in mean and women as they think about space: the left hippocampus in men, and the right parietal and right prefrontal cortex in women. (315-316)"

That's pretty much a hegemonically sexist thing to say: women are the fluffy, artistic, right-side thinkers, while males are the logical, left-side thinkers.

I consider myself a male and masculine and all that other shit, but I definitely don't give directions like the cold hard-cut logical male. I currently don't have the means to argue against what he says, but I just know that what he says doesn't seem to represent the truth.

2) On Kandel's Memory and Perception of this growing epidemic of "disorders of memory"...disorders of memory are more evident today than they were when I began practicing medicine fifty years ago because people are living longer now (327)"

This brings up other questions related to medical anthropology and health care that cut across time and space.

Perhaps more people are just diagnosing more, prescribing more, just to make more money, which gives off the feeling that "disorders of memory are more evident today."

After all, the guy is in the pharmaceutical biz...

Also, people probably are living longer, but how is he sure that a connection can be made between the fact that there are more memory disorders and a longer life expectancy?

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