The human brain has become the premier object of study for fields ranging from psychology to machine learning and artificial intelligence. What we know about the brain has expanded greatly in the last quarter century, thanks primarily to a specific method of scientific inquiry: reductionism. As Nobel Prize-winning scientist Eric Kandel explains, this process of breaking apparently whole parts into smaller units gives a real sense of the brain's underlying mechanisms.
Kandel's personal story of how he made new discoveries about the brain parallel his own reductionist method: by breaking down the steps he went through, we can better understand how scientific discoveries are made. In this case, they were surprisingly haphazard. Indeed Kandel was not schooled in neuroscience at all. He was primarily interested in psychoanalysis, and in his senior year of school, was given the chance to study the biology of the brain at the National Insitutes of Health.
Once there, he pursued specific methods of breaking down individual brain regions into component parts, observing how individual neurons reacted to stimulus, and how they worked to store memories in the brain. This method — reductionism — revealed to Kandel the difference between long-term and short-term memory, and the plastic nature of the brain itself. His life's work is an example of the surprising ways scientific discovery can happen, and the creativity involved in reaching new understandings of the world — and ourselves.
Eric Kandel's most recent book is Reductionism in Art and Brain Science.