Every once in a while life throws you a pleasant surprise. I got several today when I attended a luncheon for Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist visiting Arizona State University to accept an honorary degree. As I was rushing over to the faculty club on my bike, I considered simply skipping the event. I had plenty of things to work on, I don’t know Kandel, and before this morning, I wasn’t familiar with his work. I had glanced online before hopping on my bike, and discovered that his Nobel Prize was awarded for work on the physiological basis of memory in the marine mollusk Aplysia californica. Well, to be honest, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to marine mollusks, or to what goes on when they reminisce about days of old. But there was a free lunch involved, so why not.
As I biked up to the building, a golf-cart was delivering Prof. Kandel and several other people, all dressed more formally than I was. I trotted on ahead, to avoid a potentially uncomfortable moment in which my colleague Laurie Chassin, who was escorting Kandel, would have to decide whether I was important enough to introduce to our distinguished visitor. If she had introduced me, I figured I’d have had nothing much interesting to say to a distinguished Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist. And I was feeling especially insignificant this morning, having just had a grant submission rejected, and wondering whether it was time to retire from the game.
But then my colleague Heather Bimonte-Nelson gave an introduction to Dr. Kandel, during which she read a quote from his autobiographical “In search of memory”
“I had many moments of disappointment, despondency, and exhaustion, but I always found that by reading the literature and showing up at my lab looking at the data as they emerged day by day and discussing them with my students and postdoctoral fellows, I would gain a notion of what to do next.”
It was reassuring enough to hear that a Nobel Prize winner has “moments of disappointment, despondency, and exhaustion” to which he responded with the intellectual equivalent of getting up and putting one foot in front of the other. But even more reassuring was what this distinguished elder scholar yelled out when Dr. Bimonte-Nelson mentioned those despondent moments: “Yeah. 80 percent of the time!!”
After the introduction, Kandel hopped up and gave a few words, again joking about not normally liking to speak in front of crowds (when it was clear that, at 83 years old, he’s still a natural performer). During his own comments, he went out of his way to defuse any concerns that his Nobel Prize might make him more brilliant than thou. He described being largely ignorant of neuroscience when he began making his initial discoveries (he had been training to be a psychoanalyst), and went to great lengths to give credit to his various colleagues, including his wife, who is currently collaborating with him on a new project. In fact, the other Dr. Kandel was sitting there in the front row, occasionally joining in with a humorous response to his complimenting her.
And then when it seemed things were about over, our provost, Betty Capaldi (herself a distinguished psychologist and former president of APS), announced that she was giving us all a copy of Kandel’s latest book: “The Age of Insight.” At this, Kandel delightedly jumped back up and told us the premise of the book, joking about how he hoped he could convince us to actually read it, “and not just throw it in the trash!” The book does sound absolutely fascinating, linking art and neuroscience by exploring the connections between Vienna’s pioneering psychologists (including that Freud fellow) and their contemporary pioneering artists (including Oskar Kokoschka and Gustav Klimt; one of Klimt’s luscious paintings adorns the book’s cover).
I walked away from the free lunch, with the free book, feeling absolutely uplifted and inspired. I’d just seen a room full of researchers, some at the beginning of their careers, encouraged to believe that they too could contribute to the scientific understanding of human behavior. I’d just seen a couple married for over 50 years, still joking with one another and enjoying one another’s company. And I’d just seen a man in the 9th decade of his life, who could have rested on his laurels years ago, still approaching his research the way my 8 year old son approaches a new set of Legos – with sheer pleasure and anticipation. It was enough to inspire me to jump joyfully back into my own work (though perhaps I’ll procrastinate first, and read a bit of Kandel’s Age of Insight).
Kandel, E. R. (2006). In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. New York: Norton.
Kandel, E.R. (2012). The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. New York: Random House.