“[In Search of Memory is] a wonderful self-help book for those who seek a Nobel prize.” —Lewis Rowland, editor in chief, Neurology Today
There are two basic ingredients for success in any field: natural ability and training. (On the neuronal level, as Kandel shows, neurons are more-or-less hard-wired from DNA, but synaptic connections are changed through training.) In terms of Kandel’s career (on the behavioral level), scientific experimentation is a variation on the form of previous experiments, replicated and tinkered with over many iterations—as the scientist himself is an iteration of an evolving strand of DNA.
Kandel reveals a third element, in addition to nature and nurture, which is necessary for Nobel-caliber science. Scientists must be self-trained and self-motivated in order to produce original work. They cannot be controlled or preprogrammed. They require a special kind of freedom—you could call it “hyperfreedom”—freedom within a accelerating and enriching sociocultural environment.
Kandel asserts that “science is done in an intense and endlessly engrossing social context.” In regard to his own work, he largely attributes his success to his own social context as a Holocaust refugee living in New York within a close-knit group of friends, family, and colleagues. He describes how he was not even a science- or math-oriented student, and how throughout his life he pursued a wide variety of nonscientific interests. These extracurricular activities, he claims, were far more important to his work than his school training.
Kandel’s most influential work was done approximately 1965-1985, when he was in his late thirties to late fifties. The climax of his career occurred at the beginning of this period, when several elements of his background came together at the moment when he was choosing the basic direction of his scientific life. It was at that point that he made the revolutionary choice to study mental function in a snail—as he described it, an act of “radical reductionism.” While Kandel had a scientific rationale for this approach, it was largely inspired by a remarkable confluence of people in Kandel’s life and the sacrifices which they made for him—his wife and family, four selfless teachers, the Jewish community in Vienna, the fraternal structure of American science, and the figure of Sigmund Freud.