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Studying the direct cortical response


How I came to study the brain
Eric Kandel Scientist
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In medical school I didn’t enjoy the first few years very much. But I loved the clinical years. And I spent the summers working at psychiatric hospitals. I spent one summer at McLean Hospital, another one at Central Islip. And I was training to become, you know, a psychoanalyst, a psychiatrist. And then I decided in my senior year… there’s a six-month period in which you can do whatever you want, elective period. Most of the people were doing practical things, radiology, you know, something leading to the clinical experience. Dermatology. I decided that even a psychoanalyst should know something about the brain. Now this was not just out of the blue. I was reading the psychoanalytical literature and there were two people, a guy called Mortimer Ostow and a guy called Larry Kubie who were interested in the brain, they were both trained neurologists before they became psychoanalysts, and they both trod a bridge between brain and psychoanalysis. And I found their writing fascinating. For example, Larry Kubie was very much taken with Penfield’s work, in which he’s stimulating the cerebral cortex while operating for scar tissue, to remove [the scars] that caused epilepsy, and he would stimulate certain areas in the medial temporal lobe; he would elicit memory-like phenomena. Kubie thought this was fantastic. Unconscious mental processes. So he went up to Montreal with a tape recorder and tape-recorded some of this thing. Really quite fascinating. So I thought, you know, I should spend some time at a neurobiology lab.

So I spoke to Ostow about this, and he said there’s only one guy, Harry Grundfest. He really is interested in the mind. Now, when he said there’s only one guy, he meant that literally because at NYU there was nobody working on the brain. It isn’t like now, you walk down Broadway and four out of five people you bump into are neurobiologists. Very few people working on the brain in those days. So I went to see Harry Grundfest, and he said, ’What are you interested in?’ And I said, ‘I’d like to know where in the brain the ego, the id and the superego is located.’ And he looked at me as if I was meshuga. He said, 'What are you talking about? You know, we don’t know whether these concepts have any meaning whatsoever. We have not the foggiest notion where they are in the brain. If you want to study the brain, you have to study it one cell at a time.'

Eric Kandel (b. 1929) is an American neuropsychiatrist. He was a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. He shared the prize with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard. Kandel, who had studied psychoanalysis, wanted to understand how memory works. His mentor, Harry Grundfest, said, 'If you want to understand the brain you're going to have to take a reductionist approach, one cell at a time.' Kandel then studied the neural system of the sea slug Aplysia californica, which has large nerve cells amenable to experimental manipulation and is a member of the simplest group of animals known to be capable of learning. Kandel is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He is also Senior Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, which is now the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University. Kandel's popularized account chronicling his life and research, 'In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind', was awarded the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Award for Science and Technology.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: medical school, psychoanalysis, Mortimer Ostow, Lawrence Kubie, Harry Grundfest, neurobiology, brain

Duration: 2 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2015

Date story went live: 04 May 2016