Un­for­get­table, though near or far

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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

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