(1) Sigmund Freud

Freud and colleagues

Although Kandel never met Freud, a large part of Kandel’s life was modeled on Freud’s. Freud served almost like a mystical idol to Kandel, an invisible mentor who guided Kandel through the most difficult periods of his life, even inspiring him through his writings and neuroanatomical work to abandon Freudian psychoanalysis itself.

Toward the end of my junior year I met and fell in love with Anna Kris, a student at Radcliffe College who had also emigrated from Vienna. At the time…I was planning to take seminars with Karl Vietor [on modern German literature] in my senior year. But suddenly, at the end of my junior year, he died of cancer. Vietor’s death was a personal loss; it also created a large void in the curriculum I had planned. A few months before Vietor’s death I had met Anna’s parents, Ernst and Marianne Kris, both prominent psychoanalysts from Freud’s circle. The Krises fired my interest in psychoanalysis…

What made psychoanalysis so compelling to me while I was in college was that it was at once imaginative, comprehensive and empirically grounded—or so it appeared to my naïve mind…Ernst Kris went to great pains to…argue that part of the appeal of psychoanalysis was that, like behaviorism, it attempts to be objective, to reject conclusions drawn from introspection. My attraction to psychoanalysis was further enhanced by the facts that Freud was Viennese and Jewish and had been forced to leave Vienna….[Anna’s grandfather] was Freud’s best friend, and the physician to his children. [Anna’s mother] was a close friend of Freud’s highly accomplished daughter, Anna. Indeed, Marianne Kris named her daughter after Anna Freud…[Anna Kris] now has a highly successful practice of psychoanalysis in Cambridge…(p.42)

When psychoanalysis emerged from Vienna in the first decades of the twentieth century, it represented a revolutionary way of thinking about mind and its disorders…I shared this enthusiasm…also because it conjured up the intellectual environment of Vienna that I admired and had missed out on. Indeed, what I so enjoyed in the intellectual life that surrounded Anna Kris and her parents were the insights and perspectives it gave me on life in Vienna in the 1930s. (p.363)

To be a practicing psychoanalyst in the 1950s, it was generally considered best to go to medical school…So in the summer of 1951 I took, almost on impulse, the introductory course in chemistry…A few months later, based on that single chemistry course and my overall college record, I was accepted at NYU Medical School.

I greatly enjoyed the course on the anatomy of the brain…Each of us built out of colored clays a large-scale model that was four times the size of the human brain. While I had been taking the anatomy course, Anna and I started to drift apart. A relationship…did not work well with her in Cambridge and me in New York. In addition, our interests were starting to diverge… (p.43)

Through the Krises, I had met three psychoanalysts [interested in biology of the brain]. After some discussion with each of them, I decided in the fall of 1955 to take an elective at Columbia with the neurophysiologist Harry Grundfest. At the time…no one on the NYU faculty was teaching basic neural science. (p.47)

Grundfest listened patiently as I told him of my rather grandiose ideas [to locate the Freudian ego and id in the brain]…He explained that my hope was far beyond the grasp of contemporary brain science. Rather, he told me, to understand mind we needed to look at the brain one cell at a time. One cell at a time!...As we talked I suddenly remembered that in 1887, when Freud began his own career, he had…started out as an anatomist, studying single nerve cells…(p.55)

One evening Grundfest threw into my lap an issue of the Journal of General Physiology that contained three papers by Kuffler based on his work with single nerve cells in the crayfish. I found the idea of a contemporary neurophysiologist working on crayfish simply remarkable: one of Freud’s first scientific papers, published in 1882, when he was only twenty-six, was on the nerve cells of the crayfish!...All I knew at this point is that someday I might want to test an idea with an invertebrate animal…(p.107)

I began my resident training in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School…I asked the [director of the mental health center] if it might by possible to have some space and modest resources to set up a laboratory…He looked at me and then pointed to the pile of resumes of the twenty-two other residents and bellowed, “Who do you think you are? What makes you think that you are better than any one of these?” I was completely taken aback by the content of his remarks and even more by the tone. In all my years as an undergraduate at Harvard and a medical student at NYU, none of my professors had ever talked to me like that…He told me to go to the wards and take care of patients…Within several weeks, he approached me and said that he gathered from his colleagues that I was a good person to invest in. “What do you need?” he said.

My residency training turned out to be at once stimulating and a bit disappointing…We saw only a limited number of patients…for one-hour sessions two or even three times a week. Although we did not really improve their mental functioning, we learned a great deal about schizophrenia and depressive illnesses by simply listening to them….We learned next to nothing about the…the biological underpinnings…In response to this weakness in the program, the other residents and I organized a discussion group…Prior to our arrival, the mental health center had almost never invited outside speakers to address the residents or the faculty. This was a reflection of the vaunted self-confidence of Harvard and Boston at large…I initiated academic grand rounds, conferences that brought together all of the researchers and physicians of the hospital…

I found myself questioning my decision to become a psychoanalyst. I also missed being in the laboratory. I yearned for new data and was eager to have findings to discuss with other scientists…In those days, residents did not work very hard: from 8:30am to 5:00pm…As a result, I was able to study hypothalamic neuroendocrine cells…During my spare time I carried out a somewhat original series of experiments showing that [neuroendocrine cells in the goldfish] generative action potentials just as ordinary neurons do. (p.152)

I returned to Harvard Medical School in 1963 as an instructor, the lowest rung on the faculty ladder. I supervised residents in training in psychotherapy, an exercise I called the blind leading the blind…I made the…fundamental and difficult decision not to become a psychoanalyst but to devote myself full-time to biological research…and I decided to leave Harvard for NYU Medical School. There I would start a small research group…

I was also in the process of terminating a personal psychoanalysis I had undertaken in Boston. Analysis was particularly helpful to me in that difficult and stressful period; it allowed me to dismiss ancillary considerations and focus on the fundamental issues…My analyst, who was extremely supportive...readily understood that I was too single-minded at that point to carry off a dual career successfully. I am often asked whether I benefited from my analysis. To me, there is little doubt. It gave me new insights into my own actions and into the actions of others, and it made me, as a result, a somewhat better parents and a more empathetic and nuanced human being. (p.180)

A keen student of the anatomy of the brain, Freud had written repeatedly about the relevance of the biology of the brain to psychoanalaysis. For example in 1914 he wrote, “We must recollect that all of our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably one day be based on an organic substructure.” In 1920 Freud again noted, “The deficiencies in our descriptionwould probably vanish if we were already in a position to replace the psychological terms by physiological or chemical ones.” (p.46)