A new science of the mind – lectures by Eric Kandel

Note: Click here to download the Student Work Outline for Memory

“I know what it’s like to be dead.”

– Clive Wearing, a man who suffers from devastating memory dysfunction.

Hmong woman
This old woman in Vietnam holds in her memory the details of a long life: personal memories, facts and names, and also the memories of how to do things - such as how to weave and how to ride a bike. Her ability to retrieve such memories and to create new ones allows her to form her own individual stream of consciousness and consequently an ongoing sense of her identity. And this skill, as Kandel showed, depends upon the activity in the synapses of her brain. He was able to trace the neural basis of memories. He found out that when we learn new things and commit them to memory, our brains change. If we learn something in a lasting way, or create a new long-term memory, our brains will be different afterwards. Even at this woman's age, her brain is creating new connections whenever she learns something new - a name, a technique, a piece of information or even a new way of donning her scarf.

Photo: Hmong woman by Mimi_K, flickr.com

Clive Wearing’s terrible words illustrate the link between the first area of study and the second in Unit 3 Psychology.

It is our ability to create and retrieve memories that allows us to experience what William James called the “stream of consciousness”. This awareness of our ongoing identity, which connects our personal past with our present, despite the physical changes of our existence, despite our moments of forgetfulness, despite altered states of consciousness including dreaming and sleeping, is central to the experience of being both human and alive.

Clive Wearing knows that he has lost something crucial to human life, because he can no longer form new memories. His horrifying loss is one of the case studies referred to by Eric Kandel in the lectures described below. Wearing’s consciousness is purely in the present. Even though he can play the piano with phenomenal skill, he cannot recall having done so a minute or two later. He can no longer connect his past with his present.

Kandel closes this series of lectures by referring to five principles that his lifework allows him to enunciate with the authority of a great scientist:

1. Mind and brain are inseparable.

2. Each mental function of the brain is carried out by separate neural circuits in different regions of the brain.

3. All neural circuits are made up of the same class of signalling units: nerve cells and their synapses.

4. The synapse serves a double function: it is the point of communication between nerve cells, and the site of memory storage.

5. The synapse is also a target for disease in both neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The videos below have been embedded from research.org’s channel on Youtube and provide the first and the last lectures in the four-lecture series. You may prefer to go to the website link below, where you can find links to all four lectures in the series, as presented by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The website link is:


Another option is to download these lectures to your i-pod via i-Tunes. That way you can listen to Kandel and go for a walk as well! To do this, go to the link below and navigate to Podcasts 13 and 16, the neuroscience lectures, number 1 and number 4:


These videos will introduce you to the brilliant mind and fascinating discoveries of Kandel, who, through his studies of the Aplysia slug, was able to uncover what happens to neurons in the brain when we learn something new and commit that new knowledge to memory. Though they are in greater depth than you will require for the exam, watching the videos will provide you with an overview of the whole topic of human memory.

The first six videos below are all part of one lecture by Kandel on the history of memory research. These videos are a superb introduction to the topic. Part 1 mainly introduces Kandel; Parts 2-6 form the majority of his lecture. He is a very clear speaker who uses many examples that you will find aid your comprehension:

Part 2 considers the painful life of Clive Wearing and the research into which parts of the brain are involved in memory:

Part 3 touches on the work of Broca and Wernicke, thus providing excellent revision for your studies in first term.

Part 4 of Kandel’s video discusses the development of electrical stimulation of the brain and its use to identify parts of the brain that are involved in specific mental activities, such as facial recognition, sensation in specific parts of the body and memory.

Part 5 continues to consider the question of the localisation of memory within the brain. In this video Kandel describes the importance of the hippocampus in allowing short-term memories to be converted into long-term memories. In particular he discusses the ground-breaking research into the life and brain of HM, now known as Henry Molaison.

In Part 6 Kandel refers to the experiences of Henry Molaison and Clive Wearing, who both tragically suffered terrible memory deficiencies as a result of hippocampus damage. Clive Wearing describes his experience thus: “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Drawing on these two case studies, Kandel explains which kinds of memory are affected by hippocampus damage and which are not.

In the much longer video below, Kandel describes in some depth the studies with slugs and mice that underpin research into the physiological basis of memory. Once again, the depth of this lecture is much greater than you will need for your assessment, but watching the video will provide you with Kandel’s highly lucid explanation of his Nobel Prize winning research.