Unforgettable, though near or far
In Search of Memory, documentary, not rated, in English and German with subtitles, The Screen, 988-2775, 3 chiles
I“Memory,” says Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Dr. Eric Kandel, “is the glue that binds our mental life together.” That glue is not just metaphorical, but physiological. Long-term memory, Dr. Kandel and his associates have learned, produces actual anatomical change, modification in the synaptic structure of the brain. Short-term memory produces no comparable physical alteration.
Petra Seeger, a German filmmaker (apparently no relation to the American folksinger), has crafted a documentary about the work of the eminent scientist, both in the research lab and down the long and eventful pathways of his life. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his marriage to his wife, Denise, the Kandels — accompanied by children, grandchildren, and film crew— undertake a sometimes playful, sometimes painful trip down memory lane.
Kandel was born in Vienna in 1929. His early childhood was idyllic: his father owned a toy store. But his world took a sinister turn when Hitler’s troops marched into the city in March 1938. That fall, the horrors of Kristallnacht destroyed what remained of
the possibility of Jews living in peace in that city. Stripped of possessions and deserted by their non-Jewish friends, the Kandel family escaped to New York. The memory of that time still brings a tear to the eye of the bespectacled, white-haired Columbia University professor. “I cry easily,” he admits with a grin.
The film follows Kandel as he seeks out remembered streets and places in Vienna: his father’s shop, their old apartment. It also accompanies him around Brooklyn as he searches for similar signposts of his youth there and chats with old-time Brooklynites who might remember something of the Kandel family. Young Eric attended Erasmus Hall High School, and his father intended him to go on to Brooklyn College, but at the urging of an Erasmus teacher, he applied to Harvard. (“It’s not Brooklyn College,” he quips, “but ya gotta get an education somewhere.”) His original inclination was toward the study of history as a way of understanding the traumas of his Vienna childhood, but at Harvard, he eventually gravitated toward Freud, Skinner, and the challenges of psychology and neurology. Kandel makes the case that his effort to understand the Nazi persecution of Jews is directly connected to the scientific pursuit of memory that has been the focus of his adult life.
The appeal of In Search of Memory relies in large part on Kandel’s charismatic presence. He’s a small man with an oversized, joyous personality that spills over into frequent laughter. Kandel resembles a pint-sized Larry David, with a satchel mouth borrowed from Joe E. Brown. His research involves a lot of lab work with mice, and he playfully remarks at one point that people who specialize in certain animals begin to resemble them. But as a starry-eyed young fan at a book signing gushes, “He’s the rock star of neuroscience.”
The film alternates between the memory-lane travelogues, interviews in which Kandel explains for the layman the intricacies of the physical structure of memory, and observations from his assistants and colleagues. It also, less happily, wanders into the area of dramatic reenactments of scenes from his childhood. As dynamic filmmaking, it often leaves something to be desired, but its subject matter is always engaging.
“The ability to communicate an idea is as important as the idea itself,” says an associate, “and that’s what Eric has.” Whether you come out of In Search of Memory with a more complete understanding of the interrelation of psychology and neuroscience— or the mechanics of synaptical mutation beyond the hippocampus as a manifestation of the physiology of long-term memory — will depend to some extent on your aptitude for such things.
Watching the movie brings to mind the educational experiment undertaken a few decades back by that noted pedagogue and sometime gossip columnist for the Vatican newspaper, Father Guido Sarducci (aka Don Novello), who proposed a Five Minute University. “The idea,” Sarducci explained, “is that in five minutes you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.” With economics, for example, all you have to remember is “supply and demand.”
With this in mind, if you can remember that short-term memory transforms into long-term memory via physical transformation of the synapses, you’re ready for your diploma.
The “rock star of neuroscience”: Eric Kandel
Is it live, or is it memory? Darsteller Schierl as the young Eric Kandel