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Life After the Nobel: Eric Kandel researches memory, writes about art

  • Winner | Nobel Prize-Winning scientist discusses life after the award, continuing his research and also writing a book on art.

Since winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 10 years ago, Eric Kandel has kept busy in and out of the laboratory—making breakthroughs on memory formation and schizophrenia, and also writing a book about art.

Kandel, university professor and Kavli Professor of brain science in neuroscience, won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. In a recent interview, he recalled the early morning on Yom Kippur when he was notified that he had won the prize. At the time, he said, he was excited to begin a new chapter in his life as a Nobel Laureate. It was a magical experience in Sweden to share his prize with his family, friends, and fellow Columbia faculty, Kandel said.

Since winning the prize, Kandel has had two noteworthy developments in the laboratory.

He recently found a molecule that regulates local protein synthesis within the synapse which is related to maintaining memory related synaptic growth. A second recent development in the Kandel lab is the use of mice as an animal model to better understand memory disorders such as schizophrenia and age-related memory loss.

Kandel, with a strong interest in art, is also currently writing a book on the subject—in fact, as a splurge after winning the Nobel Prize, Kandel said that he bought an apartment in Paris close to the Louvre and several art galleries for him and his wife.

In addition to his work on art, completing his laureate task of writing an autobiography, Kandel published, “In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind,” chronicling his life and research.

“I have gotten great satisfaction from that book,” Kandel said. Although he focused on his research, Kandel also wrote about his experiences in Vienna for the first time. He was born in Austria in 1929 and was forced to move after the country was invaded.

Since winning the prize, Kandel said he has enjoyed the opportunity to share his work on different platforms. “Science is a wonderful part of culture that is not seen as accessible as ballet, opera, musicals, rock ‘n roll, but that is silly because it is enormously interesting and can be explained in fairly simple terms,” he said.

The prize, he added, was just one part of his career. “One is not in the game for the prize,” he said. “There are a lot of disappointments in science. Things don’t work out the way that you want them. So what you get is the pleasure of discovering something new, the social interaction with people, and the continued opportunity of learning,” he added.

Despite his interest in science, Kandel said that it was not his focus in the beginning of his studies. As a Jewish immigrant from Vienna, Kandel said that he wondered how people who were so civilized one day could brutally turn on you the next. He said he tried to answer this question as a history major at Harvard University where he studied German-Austrian history. But, he said, he soon realized that in order to understand motivation, he needed to understand psychology.

As a result, Kandel turned his attention to memory, the field in which he would ultimately win the Nobel Prize. “We are who we are because of what we learn and what we remember. It is the distinctive feature of our life.”

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