Travel a while in Eric Kandel’s shoes

For a peek into the life and past of famed neuroscientist Eric Kandel, check out the new documentary “In Search of Memory” (which also happens to be the name of his well-regarded memoir). Here in Chicago, it’s playing through the week of Neuroscience 2009, the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting, at the Facets Cinémathèque in Lincoln Park.

If you click over to Facets’ page or the main film page (which is partly in German), you can see the first two minutes of the film. It starts as it goes on; director and producer Petra Seeger shows Kandel primarily via his interactions, with family, with her and other interviewers, with colleagues in and outside the lab, with complete strangers and with politicians in Vienna, the city his family had to escape after the Nazis came to power.

Because there is no straight narration and people sometimes aren’t introduced by name, the story can feel fragmented. This impressionistic method works in its own way, though, switching quickly from a family trip to Vienna to research work on why some memories are stronger to a lecture Kandel gives at a synagogue on why he turned from studying human brains to marine mollusks. In its non-linear way, the film travels a pretty straight history of his life.

Kandel has worked to tease out exactly how we remember, including discovering that we have short-term and long-term memories and that they differ in significant ways, findings that led to a Nobel prize. Seeger emphasizes parallels in his life, from his describing leaving Vienna in panic to his return in glory more than 60 years later. Re-enactments of the strong memories he had in Vienna add additional visual parallels, and his interactions with family and lab colleagues now are contrasted with his interactions in his undergraduate days at Harvard.

She also gives Kandel space to describe himself, trademark laugh, a few tears and all. His Jewish faith is a strong current in his life, including “Never forget,” the motto reminding us to remember the Holocaust. “I’ve been investigating the biological basis of that motto,” how memory works in the brain, all his life, he says.

I enjoyed the glimpses of work in the lab–seeing sea creatures in the tank and then under the microscope, translating descriptions on a posterboard, seeing a neuron alight with nerve growth factor. But though the science sections are a good refresher course, they move so fast (and in fragments) that people new to the field will get only the biggest brushstrokes.

Even so, we do get a fascinating glimpse into the world of memory and scientific life, given by one of its most successful—and most down-to-earth—practitioners. Do try to see it if you’re in Chicago this week (through Oct. 22), or keep an eye out for it to come near you.

– Nicky Penttila

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