Is Donald Trump Democracy at Work? What One Nobel Laureate Thinks
Nobel Laureate and Columbia professor Dr Eric Kandel discusses the nature of good and evil via the Trump candidacy, and his own devastating childhood experiences in Austria.
Dr. Eric Kandel is University Professor and Fred Kavli Professor and Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. His most recent book is The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present.
By probing the synaptic connections between nerve cells in the humble sea slug, Eric Kandel has uncovered some of the basic molecular mechanisms underlying learning and memory in animals ranging from snails to flies to mice and even in humans. His groundbreaking studies have demonstrated the fundamental ways that nerve cells alter their response to chemical signals to produce coordinated changes in behavior. This work is central to understanding not only normal memory but also dementia and other mental illnesses that affect memory.
Kandel's research has shown that learning produces changes in behavior by modifying the strength of connections between nerve cells, rather than by altering the brain's basic circuitry. He went on to determine the biochemical changes that accompany memory formation, showing that short-term memory involves a functional modulation of the synapses while long-term memory requires the activation of genes and the synthesis of proteins to grow new synaptic connections. For this work, the Austrian-born Kandel was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The traumatic events of Kandel's childhood likely influenced his later interest in the biological mechanisms of memory. He was only eight when, in 1938, Nazi Germany annexed his homeland, but the humiliation and discrimination that Kandel, his family, and other Jews suffered under this oppressive regime were forever seared into his memory. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, his family fled Austria for the United States.
As a college student at Harvard, Kandel majored in history and literature, but he was drawn to psychoanalysis after befriending a native Austrian student whose parents were prominent psychoanalysts in Sigmund Freud's circle. Kandel went to medical school at New York University with the goal of studying psychiatry and becoming a psychoanalyst himself. But thinking that he should know more about how the brain works, he took a neurophysiology course that shifted his interest toward research into the biology of memory. "The cell and molecular mechanisms of learning and memory struck me as a wonderful problem to study … It was clear to me even then that learning and memory were central to behavior, and thus to psychopathology and to psychotherapy," Kandel recalled.
Initially, he focused on recording the activity of nerve cells in the hippocampus, a region of the brain vital to memory formation. The mammalian hippocampus, however, with its seemingly infinite number of neurons and synaptic connections, made it difficult to study learning and memory at the cellular level. Kandel soon realized he needed a simpler system and chose the invertebrate sea slug Aplysia, much to the dismay of his colleagues who thought that no self-respecting neurophysiologist would abandon the study of learning in mammals to work on an invertebrate.
This bold decision paid off, though, and Kandel now works to instill in his students a sense that risk-taking is important to good science. "I try to convey to students my love of science and my conviction that exploring the biology of the brain is an unmatched scientific adventure," he explained. "I also encourage them to think boldly and to work carefully; to take gambles on their ideas and to try new approaches. I also tell them never to be embarrassed in exposing their ignorance … We are all here to learn, and the learning never ends."
More recently, Kandel has expanded his studies of simple learning and memory in Aplysia to include more complex forms of memory storage in genetically modified mice. These studies have focused on explicit memory (the conscious recall of information about places and objects), revealing the importance of a balance of activation and inhibition in memory storage so that animals as well as humans do not store information in their memories that is not important to recall.
Eric Kandel: I find the Trump phenomenon so shocking, and if you look at my life, for example, coming here at nine and then here at age 87, I'm four weeks shy, having this interview with you having really a privileged life in the United States, I can only say good things about the United States. I think it's – sure it has weaknesses. You have weaknesses. I have weaknesses. That's intrinsic to life. But if you look at the overall balance of what this country has achieved, it's remarkable.
I was born in Vienna and Jews were being driven out and if they stated they were killed. So I had to get out in 1939 one year after Hitler came. And I wanted to understand how people could listen to Hyden and Mozart and Beethoven one day and beat up the Jews the next. So I thought I would do this through intellectual history. And there was a wonderful major called History and Literature, which was an honors major. Everybody taking that major, a small group of people, had to write a dissertation. And I wrote my dissertation on the attitude toward National Socialism of three different writers who were in different positions on their political spectrum.
And while I was writing that I met a psychoanalyst who actually was also an art historian Ernst Kris who said if you want to understand the human mind you're not going to do it through intellectual history, you're going to do it through psychoanalysis. And that's what led me to psychoanalysis. But the Harvard experience, nonetheless, when you take these liberal arts courses you're asked to write dissertations, you're asked to write essays and I got the experience of being able to write about Dostoyevsky and Freud by working on it for two or three months. So even though I didn't master the subject I learned to feel comfortable about extracting key ideas and developing them.
You look at the Germans, the Austrians are more complex, but the Germans could not have handled themselves better after the Second World War. It's a transformed society. They're open. They're tolerant. They brought 100,000 Jews into Berlin because they thought the Jewish population had gotten so small they wanted to really reestablish the Jewish community. That's fantastic.
Angela Merkel response to migrants is so empathic and such a decent humanistic response despite the fact that she's been criticized and it has cause serious problems. But just to show you how these people have transformed themselves from the horrors of the concentration camp to being an absolutely decent civilized society in a variety of realms. I think each of us is capable of being brutal; each of us is capable of being perfectly decent. It depends upon the social environment.
A famous American theologian once said, "The capability of people for good makes democracy desirable. The capability for evil makes democracy necessary." And I think this is true. There's the capability for evil in all of us. Who would've thought five years ago that Trump would be a candidate for president for a major political party? Inconceivable that America would do this. It clearly is a mistake. Even Trump I see this as a mistake. And yet this wonderful country, to which I'm internally grateful, almost went off the tracks.
The Republican Party, I mean I'm incompetent in this so this can be nonsense, the Republican Party might have decided earlier, you know we have a number of very good candidates that would not be dangerous for the country, why don't we unite behind them and see what we can do. But I think they felt that Trump, because he was so outspoken we never had a candidate like this was getting attention for being outspoken. At that time it was not about ironic matters, it was just about this country is not being run well, we need business talents like my own to run it and you see his business talents they're not so great either. So he startled everybody with what appeared to be in honestly a new bold vision and that people found this attractive. There’re aren’t any country there in the United States a number of people who are highly dissatisfied. There is a discrepancy in the United States between people who earn an enormous amount of money and many people though just barely eek out a living. And that's a bothersome issue that upsets many people and I think Trump seemed for some incomprehensible reason to be a solution to that.
We have an African-American president who I happen to think has done a remarkable job but that this country would elect him is very much to it's credit. And we're now in a position of possibly electing a woman. So a lot of the built-in prejudices have been worked through in the United States and are being worked through in the United States. I mean we're not a perfect society. As long as you've got human beings you're never going to have a perfect society. But when you look around the world we're doing pretty darn well.
Eric Kandel fled from Vienna in 1939, when he was 9 years old. The Nobel-Prize winning neuropsychiatrist and Columbia professor recently told the story on Think Again (a Big Think podcast), saying:
"My brother had built a short-wave radio set and we were listening to it as Hitler marched into Vienna. And in Heldenplatz, 200,000 people came out and cheered him like mad. I walked the streets two days later and a classmate of mine came up to me and said, ‘Kandel, I’m never to speak to you again.’ And you ask yourself the question: What is it that separates the good guys from the bad guys? And you come to the conclusion that every one of us is capable of good and of evil."
He and his 14-year-old brother boarded a ship and went to live with their uncle in Brooklyn, New York, where they were later joined by their parents. Kandel speaks warmly and appreciatively of the United States, which he has called home for the last 78 years. He might even describe it as great. Not perfect – nothing is – but in the video above, Kandel considers that race is the largest dividing factor in the US and certainly the most shameful and complicated part of its history, and yet, for the last eight years, the nation has had an African American president. Potentially, we may soon have our first female commander in chief. The US only moves towards progress, regardless of fire and brimstone headlines, and is slowly working through many of its in-built prejudices.
What is great and not great is highly subjective of course, but Kandel observes that in the last year, the candidacy of Donald Trump has been "shocking" and has given toxic viewpoints the light in which to shine. It has distracted the US from its progressive mission as public discourse and decency tries to merely hold its ground so as to not slip backwards. It was a mistake for the GOP to nominate Trump as the Republican candidate, Kandel says, but he remains optimistic that this wonderful country will get back on the track after November 8.
Eric Kandel's most recent book is Reductionism in Art and Brain Science.