Kandel and Wiesel Talk Memory

Last Sunday, two Nobel Laureates, Eric Kandel and Elie Wiesel, oscillated brilliantly between emotion and reason while discussing memory at the 92nd Street Y.

In neuroscience circles, Kandel, a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member, gained acclaim in 1965 for his groundbreaking work with the California Sea Slug Aplysia by showing how the classical conditioning of an organism leads to the intercellular rearrangement of its neurons. As a pioneering researcher committed to discerning the intercellular basis of learning and memory, he was a perfect complement to Wiesel’s humanistic perspective on memory.

Kandel began by defining memory into two categories: Explicit memory—the consciously called upon memory residing in the brain’s hippocampus, and implicit memory—the unconscious memory that resides in the amygdala, striatum, and elsewhere in the brain. Stating that “most of our life is unconscious,” he pointed out how those with Alzheimer’s disease are often unable to consciously recall experiences from their explicit memory, yet their unconscious implicit memory remains intact longer.

Wiesel, author of more than 60 books including his highly acclaimed autobiographical novel Night, shared that all of his books focus on memory. Wiesel survived internment at three separate concentration camps during World War II. At Sunday’s event, he explained that after losing his parents and two sisters to the holocaust, he no longer fears pain, he only fears forgetting it: “It is not that I live in my past, but it is that I want my past to live in me.” To Wiesel, “Life is not made of years, but of moments. It is the sum of moments that defines my destiny.” For a holocaust survivor or anyone else coping with loss, there exists a tension between moving on and never forgetting past loved ones, past anguish. Wiesel believes we should find solace in remembering past pain, “… anything but forgetting.”

Both men meditated on the conundrum that in order to preserve a memory, it must be actively revisited, yet in doing so the memory becomes subject to distortion. Wiesel posed this paradox as something of a rhetorical question: “Maybe I remember more now than before, is that bad?” Kandel dug deeper, sharing how “perceptual illusions” can cause “constructed memories” with personal biases. He then elaborated that the reconciliation of past memory with current perception requires creative association rather than photographic precision.

Wiesel underlined the importance of memory—that we must never forget. Kandel pointed out that the best way to do this is by remaining active, social, and creative into your golden years [tenets also advocated by the Dana Foundation’s Staying Sharp program].

As each of us moves through that continuously remembered present called consciousness, we should heed the words of Elie Wiesel and Eric Kandel: Keep the past alive in you, and actively use it to create a better future.

– Charles Jake Sadle

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