Thursday, July 12, 2007

Speakers: Dr. Eric Kandel at Union Hall's Secret Science Club

One thing is for certain: The Secret Science Club is Brooklyn's worst-kept secret. The line to get into Union Hall's basement for this Nobel Prize winner's talk was slung down the block when I arrived, 15 minutes to showtime. My companion had arrived twenty minutes earlier, and was already toward the "front" of the line—into the bar, down the stairs, and at the door to the cramped basement/lecture hall, whose 100 some-odd chairs were already filled, as well as another 150 bodies of side and rear standing room. This means that all those people in line, another 100+, never got in, and perhaps had to satisfy themselves instead with a beer, a book, and a shot on the indoor lawn-bowling court (don't ask). We ended up standing toward the front and side, leaning against a pillar against which, as the talk went on, I slowly slid down, until I was sitting on the floor, one leg stuck out between feet crowding the walkway, one leg stuck out underneath a very accommodating female Brooklynite's chair. Yoga is useful that way.

Dr. Kandel gave the kind of talk so many brilliant minds often end up giving to crowds of indecipherable and mixed background such as these. He spoke for about half an hour on his life history—born in Austria in the early 1930s to lower-middle class Jewish parents, robbed by the Nazis, relocated to Brooklyn as a child, pushed to attend Harvard rather than Brooklyn College by a proactive high school teacher, interested first in History, then Psychoanalysis, then Medicine, only then Science, of the biological and experimental variety, and in particular the nervous system and brain—and about half an hour on the history of his research: early experiments, mostly, and a bit of explanation on the difference between short-term and long-term memories. With tortoise-shell glasses, a coat and tie, and a shock of white hair ringing around a bald spot, he looks the consummate intellectual, but his accent is 100% Woody Allen, and had I closed my eyes, the words "mutha" and "Hitla" could have just as easily been coming from a shock of red hair as from this white.

Dr. Kandel stressed that, should we remember anything from his talk, we should remember that short-term memories do not make the kind structural, anatomical change on the brain that long-term memories do. He also explained that there is truth to the old axiom "practice makes perfect;" even in mice, which can of course be trained, with one or two lessons, the subject will remember something for a few hours, but with many more lessons, it will remember that lesson until it dies. The richest information came out during the question and answer period, when actually research scientists hiding amongst the crowd of beer-swilling intellectual hanger-ons asked detailed, specific questions that allowed the Doctor to explain certain things in greater detail. For example, there is an inhibitor that prevents us from remembering things, and it is only when our bodies release a chemical to inhibit that inhibitor can memories be "etched" into our minds. This is why we remember highly emotional moments so vividly, but might not recall what color pants we wore yesterday. There is a drug available that inhibits the release of the inhibitor's inhibitor (sorry, that's a terrible sentence; he was much more erudite) that, for example, fire fighters can take prior to going into a grisly scene. This drug will prevent them from making memories of the horror, thereby preventing post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, there is thus far no retroactive drug or treatment (e.g. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that will erase a painful memory.

Listening to this sort of talk, a bit scatter shot, re-invokes my nostalgia (is that nostalgia ever actually dormant?) for school. Is it weird that I just loved school this much? I could listen to lectures all day long, on practically any subject. Dr. Kandel, like most brilliant people I've considered, has been successful not merely because of his intelligence, but because of his rampant curiosity, which made him want to try and figure things out, experimentally. Constantly frustrated by theory, he warned that because psychoanalysts approach their work as Talmudic study—a never-ending, self-reflexive, internal conversation—and never do experiments to try to prove anything, their relevance is flagging. I see that those who are truly successful are do-ers, and I worry about myself, because I am such a sponge. I don't seem to want to do anything but listen to what other people are doing.

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