The Neuroscientist that Escaped Hitler and Won a Nobel Prize

Emmanuel Rosado
Sep 26, 2019 · 11 min read
Eric Kandel in the Medical Science Festival 2016 by Francesco Pierantoni

On the stage of the Stockholm City Hall in the year 2000, the field of neuroscience is represented by three individuals that in the late 20th Century uncovered various workings of the nervous system. The brain, the always mysterious organ that had eluded scientists for centuries, finally revealed some of its key workings in a molecular level regarding dopamine release and memory. For one of the three scientists on stage, his journey did not start in a quest for understanding such complicated molecular workings. Instead, it started in 1938 in Vienna, when Hitler had invaded his home country of Austria, changing the course of his life forever.

Eric Kandel is considered in the field of neural science (as he still likes to call it) a living giant, uncovering the biological roots of memory in the second half of the 20th Century. He did this by using a technique known as “reductionism”, in which scientist uncover some complex process “by exploring its simplest form.” For a more concrete example; exploring the signals of the human brain is a bit complicated, for such organ contains 86 billion neurons at its disposal. But, by studying a more simpler organism, like a fruit fly or even a crayfish, scientists can reduce that number of nerve cells to a more modest number and study such problems in an insolated way. Kandel discovered how memory is stored and how from a short-term it could be transferred to long-term memory (lasting to years or even decades) through the study of the giant sea slug, Aplysia. Many pass goers will find Kandel’s method a complicated one, (and it was), but as for the purpose of it, they’ll be surprised to find out how simple were the motives of him to uncover the workings of memory.

When Adolf Hitler invaded Vienna in 1938, Kandel was a 9-year-old boy waiting for a remote-controlled car for his birthday. After some fun with the birthday gift, Kandel had Nazi soldiers knocking on his door. They sent him, his brother Ludwig and his mother Charlotte to another home owned by an “affluent Jewish couple”. Kandel’s father, Hermann, who owned a toy shop in the city, was arrested and imprisoned with other hundreds of Jews. As Kandel explained in his beautiful memoir, In Search of Memory, his father was released when he proved that “he had been a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, fighting on the side of Germany during World War I.”

The move by the German chancellor came days after fierce “negotiations” with then, Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg. One must remember that it was in Austria that the Nazi leader was born and where he moved out at 19. It was Hitler’s dream to annex Austria to Germany, as this Mein Kampf (1925) passage suggests:

German-Austria must return to the great German motherland, and not because of economic considerations of any sort. No, no: even if from the economic point of view this union were unimportant, indeed, if it were harmful, it ought nevertheless to be brought about. Common blood belongs in a common Reich. As long as the German nation is unable even to band together its own children in one common State, it has no moral right to think of colonization as one of its political aims. Only when the boundaries of the Reich include even the last German, only when it is no longer possible to assure him of daily bread inside them, does there arise, out of the distress of the nation, the moral right to acquire foreign soil and territory.

Before Schuschnigg was in power, the Austrian Nazis staged a coup to take down in 1934 the chancellor in power, Engelbert Dolfuss. Although they manage to kill Dolfuss, the Nazis were resisted by the Austrian army. Dolfuss had previously abolished the old constitution, as Kandel explains, modeling himself to the Italian Fascist, Benito Mussolini. He, and later his successor, had “driven further underground” the Austrian Nationalist Socialist. But in 1938, Hitler concentrated his intentions to invade Austria and but a puppet chancellor named Arthur Seyss-Inquart. The Nazi leader threatened Schuschnigg with invading. While the latter put on some resistant — proposing a plebiscite asking for Austria to remain free or join Germany — and refused to appoint Hitler’s men, he ended up resigning after Britain and Italy refused to help.

On March 11, Hitler officially made way to his previous home in Braunau am Inn, Austria, and surprisingly, while entering Vienna, was received with open arms by 200,000 Vienneses. As many scholars still astonishingly report, in mere days, the Austrian people changed allegiance and pledge loyalty to Hitler and Nazi Germany. A month later, another plebiscite showed that 99% of all Austrians wanted Austria to join Germany.

Hitler accepts the ovation of the Reichstag after announcing the “peaceful” acquisition of Austria. (National Archives)

Kandel witnessed how a thriving culture, that had art, music, literature, turned against the Jews and pledge loyalty to Germany’s Third Reich. He was bullied by his school peers with many of the teachers making life miserable to him and another Jewish classmate. In the main streets, the Jewish boy saw how the Austrian population burned synagogues, expelled the Jewish faculty from the University and made Jews wash any signs in the streets of Austrian independence with toothbrushes.

The toy store of Kandel’s father was destroyed and their home was ransacked by the Nazi policemen. After one year of this torture from former neighbors, colleagues, and friends, Kandel and his brother Ludwig were sent to New Jersey to live with their uncles. But before going, one thing was harbored into the neuroscientist’s mind:

My last year in Vienna was a defining one, certainly, it fostered a profound, lasting gratitude for the lite I found in the United States. But without a doubt, the spectacle of Vienna under the nazis also presented me for the first time with the darker, sadistic side of human behavior. How is one to understand the sudden vicious brutality of so many people? How could a highly educated society so quickly embrace punitive policies and actions rooted in contempt for an entire people?

The memory of Nazi Austria was a traumatic and life-changing episode for Kandel. Even when he had settled with his family in New York, the same questions arose: How after all these years, he could still have a vivid memory of the Viennese people turn overnight into full Nazis?

Kandel had a regular teenage life; doing some track and field, writing in the school paper, among other activities. His talent was noticed by one of his teachers, John Campagna, who told him to apply for Harvard.

Kandel’s parents discouraged him from applying for Havard because of the cost of the application, but Mr. Campagna “volunteered to cover from his own pocket the fifteen dollars required.” He majored in “modern European history and literature” in Havard, writing his honor thesis on “the attitude toward National Socialism of three German writers: Carl Zuckmayer, Hans Carossa, and Ernst Junger.” As he explains, this line of study left him with a sour taste:

I came to the depressing conclusion that many German artists and intellectuals — including such apparently fine minds as Junger, the great philosopher Martin Heidegger, and the conductor Herbert von Karajan — had succumbed all too eagerly to the nationalistic fervor and racist propaganda of National Socialism.

Kandel adds, “Had intellectuals mobilized effectively and been able to bring along segments of the general population, Hitler’s aspirations to complete control of the government might well have been prevented, or at least severely curtailed.” This was the path that had brought the future Nobel laureate to reconsider what he was looking for from his academic career. It was at this time that he met Ann Kris, daughter of the famous psychoanalysts, Ernst Kris, and Marianne Kris. “The Krises fired my interest in psychoanalysis and changed my ideas about what I might want to do with my now open schedule”, said Kandel in his memoir.

The Austrian heritage of Kandel undoubtedly connected him with history’s most famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud. The man practicably invented psychoanalysis and had an influx of new theories that had revolutionized in the early 20th century. Kandel had read Psychopathology of Everyday Life and in his long conversations with Anna Kris, he convinced himself that maybe the answer to his questions may lie in the different theories of the unconscious and the mind:

Listening in on these exciting discussions, I was converted to their view that psychoanalysis offered a fascinating approach, perhaps the only approach, to understanding mind. Psychoanalysis opened an unsurpassed view not only into the rational and irrational aspects of motivation and unconscious and conscious memory but also into the orderly nature of cognitive development, the development of perception and thought. This area of study began to seem much more exciting to me than European literature and intellectual history.

The then-senior changed courses at the end of his year and took prerequisites for medical school. As Kandel explained, to become a psychoanalyst, one had to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist. He was admitted to New York University Medical School in 1952, were successfully kept on track to become a psychiatrist, but, he stumbled to something else that caught his attention. At his anatomy course, while building a model of the nervous system, the NYU medical student became interested in the biological aspect of the brain and what could power all these theories of the mind, that psychoanalyst proposed as separate from the complex workings of the brain.

Kandel took an elective course in the famous laboratory of Harry Grundfest hoping to uncover the biological components of Freud’s famous “Structural Theory”. When the naive medical student told Grundfest his grandiose idea, the latter told him that understanding the biological basis of Freud’s idea was “far beyond the grasp of contemporary brain science”. He would finish by stating: “to understand the mind we need to look at the brain one cell at a time.” That phrase would stay will Kandel for the rest of his career.

When the Korean War started, Kandel managed to find work in the laboratories of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to work in electrophysical recordings of the brain. Kandel had progressed from trying to find the “ego” or the “id” that Freud talked about and wanted to concentrate his efforts in the laboratory on memory.

He understood that there were different types of memories, as Brenda Milner showed with her famous patient, H.M., who did not have a short-term memory, but could still remember skills through practice. It was in the NIMH laboratory that Kandel recorded the firing of neurons in the hippocampus of mice (a seahorse-shape area hidden deep in the brain responsible for memories), which produced him with the first jolt of excitement toward the topic. As he explained in the intro of his memoir:

It is difficult to trace the complex interests and actions of one’s adult life to specific experiences in childhood and youth. Yet I cannot help but link my later interest in mind — in how people behave, the unpredictability of motivation, the persistence of memory — to my last year in Vienna. One theme of post-Holocaust Jewry has been “Never forget,” an exhortation to future generations to be vigilant against anti-Semitism, racism, and hatred, the mind-sets that allowed the Nazi atrocities to occur. My scientific work investigates the biological basis of that motto: the processes in the brain that enable us to remember.

The Holocaust trauma and the mystery of memory, the ability to go back to where all started, made Kandel follow the path towards the biological workings of memory. He would later decide to study the Giant Sea Slug, Aplysia, with the aforementioned reductionist approach. The marine creature had a modest count of 20,000 neurons, which permitted Kandel to see real-time changes in the architecture of connections. Employing a behaviorist approach, similar to those of Ivan Pavlov’s dogs when hearing the sound of a bell, Kandel was able to show Aplysia learned, stored short-term memories and later transformed them into long-term ones. I can’t do justice to his experiment with such a short and plain explanation, but here’s a better description by professor Kandel himself:

There are two forms (of memory). One is complex forms of memory, which require the hippocampus and (are called) explicit memory storage. The very simple forms like driving a car — once you know how to do it, you do it automatically — we call that implicit memory storage. And the two involve different systems in the brain.

Being a romantic, I started out with Alden Spencer to study the hippocampus. I’m thinking, ‘That’s the seat of complex memory, and I want to get complicated.’ And we succeeded to record from the hippocampus. We were the first scientists to do this and we were euphoric.

But after a while, we realized that studying the cells in a region involved in memory is necessary but not sufficient. You’ve got to see how a memory is formed. You’ve got to see how information comes into the hippocampus and how it is stored over the long term. And when we tried to see what comes into the hippocampus, we found it very complicated to analyze. So I realized we had to take a very different approach.

Rather than studying the most complex form of memory in a very complicated animal, we had to take the most simple form — an implicit form of memory — in a very simple animal. So I began to look around for very simple animals. And I focused in on the marine snail Aplysia.

My colleagues and I found that learning involves alterations in the strength of communication between nerve cells.

Nerve cells communicate with one another at specialized points called synapses. And these synapses are plastic — they can be modified by learning. If you produce a short-term memory — if you look up a telephone number you just remember for a short period of time (or) you meet somebody and remember their name briefly — you have a transient change in the strength of communication. But if you have a long-term memory, you alter the expression of genes in the brain and you grow new synaptic connections.

Aplysia, the giant sea slug that Eric Kandel used to uncover the biological workings of memory. (National Marine Sanctuaries)

As Kandel later explains in the interview, after confronting new information, your brain has gone through a change in its neural organization. It was the cornerstone of his research and the achievements in which the Nobel Prize committee awarded him in the year 2000. Kandel would later concentrate on other problems like the newly discovered prions and in publishing books for the public that mixed his three great loves: history, art, and neural science. These loves are greatly seen in his magnificent 2012 book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain (From Vienna 1900 to the Present).

Vienna always holds a deep place in Kandel’s heart. And yet, he still wrestles with the memories of his past. Even when he was honored as a triumphant son produced by the intellectual community of Austria after winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine/Physiology, Kandel told the reporters that the prize didn’t go to an Austrian, but to an American son.

He could not forget how much of the modern society of Vienna was constructed on the backs of the snatching of Jewish property during the Nazi invasion. Even after he survived Hitler and achieved the pinnacle of science, Kandel stills feel searching for memories.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Emmanuel Rosado

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IG: emmanuelfr15 Writer 🤼‍♂️ Neuroscience 🧠

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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