There is a mix of history and neuroscience in this interview with Nobel prize winner Eric Kandel, ‘The Age of Insight,’ Memory, the Holocaust, and the Art of Vienna
The Kandel family has survived Kristallnacht intact, and Eric had boarded the S.S. Gerolstein to New York. It would be many years before Kandel took up the problem of memory again. “I wanted to understand how people could listen to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven one day and beat up the Jews the next,” Kandel told me. He thought he could do it by studying intellectual history at Harvard. Then he met the art historian and psychoanalyst Ernst Kris. “He said, ‘The way to understand motivation is through psychoanalysis.’” So Kandel took up the discipline invented by Freud, and set out to discover why people hold grudges.
I recently read about the sale of Thomas Jefferson’s estate after he died. While the ability of people to hold two contradictory views at the same time is a long time fascination, Jefferson is a special case because of his place in history as one of the major architect’s of a liberal democratic republic and because he was, to use an often abused term, genuinely brilliant. Jefferson was against slavery yet owned slaves. He believed that all men regardless of race deserved equal rights, yet believed African-Americans to be intellectually inferior to white western Europeans. Jefferson could have chosen to free all his slaves upon his death, but he only freed the five he had promised freedom.
Will be sold, on the fifteenth of January, at Monticello, in the county of Albemarle, the whole of the residue of the personal estate of Thomas Jefferson, dec., consisting of 130 Valuable Negroes, Stock, Crop, and Choulhold and Kitchen Furniture. The attention of the public is earnestly invited to this property. The negroes are believed to be the most valuable for their number ever offered at one time in the State of Virginia. The household furniture, many valuable historical and portrait paintings, busts of marble and plaster of distinguished individuals; one of marble of Thomas Jefferson, by Caracei, with the pedestal and truncated column on which it stands; a polygraph or copying instrument used by Thomas Jefferson, for the last twenty-five years; with various other articles curious and useful to men of business and private families. The terms of sale will be accommodating and made known previous to the day. The sale will be continued from day to day until completed. This sale being unavoidable, it is a sufficient guarantee to the public, that it will take place at the time and place appointed. Thomas J. Randolph, Executor of Ths. Jefferson, dec. January 6, 1827-2? The paintings and busts of Thos. Jefferson, dec. will not be offered for sale on the 15th of January next, but will be sent to some one of the large cities and then sold, after due notice.
I cannot help but note the irony that even with 130 people providing free labor that Thomas died in debt.
Further on in the Kandel profile,
The way to understand memory processing is not through Marcel Proust, as Kandel discovered in the 1960s, but through a sea snail. The mollusk Aplysia has very large nerve cells that can be observed easily, and instead of studying complicated mammalian brains, Kandel found that you can simplify processes like “learning” and “memory” by poking at the poor snail. Touch the snail’s head with a glass rod, and it retracts its gills. But if you repeat the sequence often enough, the animal stops its withdrawal reflex—this is called habituation, which is another word for very basic learning. As a result of such experiences, new connections are formed between cells. This is how memory is stored and learning takes place. Kandel had become a neurobiologist.
Kandel is big on the associations the brain makes. These snails demonstrate on of the most rudimentary examples, along with the revelation that a simple snail has memory. Humans may be unique in our ability to deny and compartmentalize memory. If we have accumulated experiences of suffering for example, we might deny them so we can do something that cannot be justified if our memories are allowed to invoke recognition and regret. Like a thin layer of paint that is semitransparent over an existing painting we’re only so successful at blocking out the past. With the exception of sociopaths, that is perhaps the reason people engage in not so ethical behavior and are mentally tortured by recurring mental pictures of what they did – Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is a vivid example of the frequent failure of mental blocking.
In surreal reasoning, justice Anthony Kennedy explained that this ruling is necessary because the 9/11 bomber could have been stopped for speeding. How would strip searching him have prevented the attack? Did justice Kennedy imagine that plans to blow up the twin towers had been concealed in a body cavity? In still more bizarre non-logic, his and the other justices’ decision rests on concerns about weapons and contraband in prison systems. But people under arrest – that is, who are not yet convicted – haven’t been introduced into a prison population.
Our surveillance state shown considerable determination to intrude on citizens sexually. There’s the sexual abuse of prisoners at Bagram – der Spiegel reports that “former inmates report incidents of … various forms of sexual humiliation. In some cases, an interrogator would place his penis along the face of the detainee while he was being questioned. Other inmates were raped with sticks or threatened with anal sex”. There was the stripping of Bradley Manning is solitary confinement. And there’s the policy set up after the story of the “underwear bomber” to grope US travelers genitally or else force them to go through a machine – made by a company, Rapiscan, owned by terror profiteer and former DHA czar Michael Chertoff – with images so vivid that it has been called the “pornoscanner”.
Believe me: you don’t want the state having the power to strip your clothes off. History shows that the use of forced nudity by a state that is descending into fascism is powerfully effective in controlling and subduing populations.
We known from the Milgram torture experiments and others, that ordinary nice enough people, given the authority and right circumstances will abuse that authority. The SCOTUS ruling gives people permission to be abusive. To take an ordinary event and escalate it into a depersonalizing experience at the hands of the state. Alienating what will quickly become a large percentage of the population also degrades the loyalty that individuals should feel toward their community. The community betrayed me, so why should I be actively engaged in civic affairs or look out for mu neighbors. I wonder how much the conservatives on the court thought about the deeper reasons why we have a 4th Amendment.