Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory

At the beginning the memoir he published a few years ago, the great neuroscientist Erik Kandel gives an account of his first sexual experience. His partner was “an attractive, sensual young woman,” named Mitzi, who worked as a servant in his parents house. Mitzi was twenty-five. Kandel was eight. His memory of the encounter is intense and bittersweet. On the one hand, he felt great pleasure and interest. On the other hand, Mitzi told him they would have to stop, because if they didn’t he could become pregnant.

Kandel remembers being dubious. He knew full well that only women could have babies. But at the same time he felt a certain anxiety. What would his mother think if he became pregnant?

That worry and Mitzi’s change of mood ended my first sexual encounter. But Mitzi continued thereafter to speak freely to me about her sexual yearnings and said that she might have realized them with me were I older.

Mitzi did not, as it turned out, remain celibate until I reached her age qualifications. Several weeks after our brief rendezvous in my bed, she took up with a gas repairman who came by to fix our stove. A month or two later, she ran off with him to Czechoslovakia. For many years thereafter, I thought that running off to Czechoslovakia was the equivalent of devoting one’s life to the happy pursuit of sensuality.

Kandel describes this lucky moment as one of his fondest early memories, and he also describes it as typically Viennese.

That erotic experience was right out of one of Arthur Schnitzler’s short stories, wherein a young, middle-class Viennese adolescent is introduced to sexuality by ein susses Madchen, a sweet young maiden, either a servant in the house or a working girl outside the house. Andrea Lee, writing in The New Yorker, has said that one of the criteria bourgeois families in Austria-Hungary used in selecting girls for housework was that they be suitable to relieve the family’s adolescent boys of their virginity, in part to entice them away from any possible attraction to homosexuality.

I just got around to reading Kandel’s memoir recently, and this anecdote caught my attention and refused to release it. Vienna is a city I know only from books. But this was a Vienna I did not know, even from books. The repression and ambivalence, the neurosis and hypocrisy detailed by Freud and his biographers (for instance, and with special relish, by Peter Gay), the self-conscious amorality of the rakes in Schnitzler’s stories, and the terrible fear of venereal disease that Stefan Zweig describes in The World of Yesterday, his own memoir of a Viennese childhood two generations earlier, is here replaced by an innocent and even rational sexuality, in which the libido – at least of a male child – is influenced by a sweet girl who, though she tells fairy tales, is paid to be gentle and accessible.

Of course Kandel was only 8 years old; he was not an adolescent. His family to fled Vienna in 1938. Soon this rich, contradictory Jewish Viennese culture would be erased so brutally that even slight a trace of its myths have special interest.

Still, one might ask: is it true? Since Kandel offers a reference to a New Yorker article by Andrea Lee, I decided to read it. The story is called La Ragazza, and it appeared in the issue for February 16, 2004. It is a beautiful story. It is not a piece of journalism or a biographical sketch, but a work of fiction, and it takes place not in Vienna but in Turin. Narrated in the third person, it sticks closely to the point of view of an unreliable rake from Padua named Orso who likes to irritate his girlfriends with the story of the “the first cunt he ever saw.” The cunt in question belonged to a housemaid named Ida. Orso was twelve at the time:

Ida, without underpants, perched precariously, legs askew, on the edge of the kitchen table, as Orso’s brother, Remo, a year older, declaimed in a pompous, pedagogic tone: “Questa, caro mio, è la fica”—“This, Orso, my boy, is the pussy.” Remo couldn’t actually have had a schoolmaster’s pointer, yet he was indicating with enough formality to suggest one: labia majora, labia minora, mons pubis, clitoris. Was he consulting a medical dictionary at the same time? It was possible. And leaning back on her elbows, giggling shameless encouragement in her singsong Friulano accent, was beautiful, brainless Ida, tall and blond and long-necked, with a head that looked as small as a goose’s.

Describing the scene to his lovers over the years, Orso has romanticized what he saw between Ida’s legs as a rose, pink-lipped and crimson in its depths, and has added a swirling frame of old-fashioned petticoats—when in fact the girl wore a coverall of postwar cut that squashed her thighs grotesquely when pulled up. What he really thought it looked like was a sea creature—edged with pale moss or cilia and exuding a mollusk’s imperturbable smugness. An impression that was hardly dispelled a few evenings later when, much to Remo’s chagrin, Orso was the one pulled down onto Ida’s small hard bed, after she had invited him to her room to deliver some old copies of Corriere dei Piccoli, the children’s weekly she used to read with her lips moving after washing the dinner dishes.

This scene, with its mixture of sex, science, sibling rivalry, and class condescension, is presented with somewhat more irony than in Kandel’s recollection. Orso’s attempt to irritate women by recounting it is invariably successful:

“Poor thing.” This was the comment of Anne, Orso’s American second wife, the mother of his children, who was quick to take up the cause of any woman against him.

“What do you mean, ‘poor thing’? It was all Ida’s idea to start with. She was eighteen or nineteen—and no virgin. A good housekeeper and a great cook, too. Nobody could make knoederli like hers. And she ended up fine. Married a carabiniere and came to my mother’s funeral in a mink coat.”

“Poor thing.” This was Bettina, Orso’s great love, who, throughout their six-year affair, stayed married to his business partner, Grellio. “I bet she didn’t really have petticoats like a cancan dancer. Sounds too much like Belle Epoque pornography to me. And why did your mother hire a slut like that?”

“She was a brilliant laundress. Could get through my mother’s entire trousseau of linen and hemp sheets and my father’s shirts in a single day. And I think they expected her to relieve Remo and me of our virginity. That’s what bourgeois families did in those days. So we wouldn’t end up homosexual.”

“Poor thing.” This was Sveva, the twenty-two-year-old assistant accountant in Orso’s office, with whom he occasionally sneaks off for a weekend. “So typical of men of your generation. You’ve all got a proto-Fascist nineteenth-century patriarchal mind-set. You’ve made the victim into an accomplice to quiet your sense of guilt.”

Now, indeed, we are back in the world of Schnitzler. Not the charming, anecdotal Schnitzler, but the Schnitzler of self-interested rationalization, and cruelty, all wrapped in thin blanket of cultural knowingness that does not conceal its crude outline. Some of the depth of Andrea Lee’s story comes from these echoes of Schnitzler, even to the point of “poor thing.” This is a phrase used in the most condescending way in Schnitzler’s famous play, The Affairs of Anatol. Anatol is here talking with is friend Max about the women he has had sex with:

ANATOL: I had a fine idea of myself in those days. I used to catch myself thinking . . . Poor child, poor child!

MAX. Poor . . . ?

ANATOL. When I was very young indeed I saw myself as one of the world’s great heroes of romance. These women, I thought . . . I pluck them, crush the sweetness from them . . . it’s the law of nature . . . then I throw them aside as I pass on.

Behind Schnitzler’s Anatol, behind Andrea Lee’s Orso, there is the great icon of sexual narcissism, unnamed but unmistakable, Casanova, who also had his first sex as a child. It was also in Padua, and also with an older girl. She was fourteen, Casanova was eleven. She had the duty of dressing his hair.

One morning she came to me as I was in bed and brought me a pair of white stockings of her own knitting. After dressing my hair, she asked my permission to try the stockings on herself, in order to correct any deficiency in the other pairs she intended to knit for me. The doctor had gone out to say his mass. As she was putting on the stocking, she remarked that my legs were not clean, and without any more ado she immediately began to wash them. I would have been ashamed to let her see my bashfulness; I let her do as she liked, not foreseeing what would happen. Bettina, seated on my bed, carried too far her love for cleanliness, and her curiosity caused me such intense voluptuousness that the feeling did not stop until it could be carried no further. Having recovered my calm, I bethought myself that I was guilty and begged her forgiveness. She did not expect this, and, after considering for a few moments, she told me kindly that the fault was entirely her own, but that she never would again be guilty of it. And she went out of the room, leaving me to my own thoughts.

But where Orso is a creep, and Anatol is ridiculous, Casanova in his memoirs is a realist, nearly a psychologist by temperament, who respects self-interest when he finds it expressed openly and deals with hypocrites poetically by deceiving them. Casanova displays a guiltless sexual curiosity that can only viewed by a Jewish Viennese doctor – which is what Schnitzler was, before he dropped medicine for fiction – with a kind of amazement. Schnitzler wrote a long story about Casanova in 1918, a tale in which the hero commits horrible acts with a bravado and savoir-faire available only to those incapable of remorse. After compelling a man to sell his mistress and then stabbing him to death in a duel, Casanova sleeps for days, bothered by little more than a vague feeling of bitterness and pronounced physical exhaustion.

How can this be possible? Shouldn’t inner contradictions – between Casanova’s sense of personal honor, say, and the memory that he has abused a woman who did nothing to him except wound his vanity – result in an uncontrollable anxiety? But Casanova is a master of oblivion. He does not erase the content of past incidents from his consciousness – his recollections are vivid – but instead he artfully preserves elements consistent with his self-esteem while softening what would cause him too much pain.

Willful forgetting, intentional non-knowing; these remain topics of controversy in philosophy and psychology. Usually, forgetting the past is understood as weakness, especially in old Vienna:

Dormant unconscious conflicts, revived by aroused appetites, make the course of sexual conquest, like that of true love, anything but smooth. Even the middle-class adolescent’s first fumbling experiments – his initiation by a complaisant servant at home or a venal waitress in town – is, in real life, a nest of ambivalences and rationalizations, of confused arousals and bouts of panic.”

–Peter Gay, Education of the Senses: The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud

Yet if there’s one thing Casanova is spared, it’s panic.

Erik Kandel, among his many interesting research topics, has studied panic. Panic is easy to induce in a mouse: you turn on a bright light, remove all routes of escape, and give it repeated shocks. Soon the creature will be frozen in a corner. A few years ago, Kandel and his colleagues decided to try and understand the mechanism by which learned panic occurs, using the mouse as a model animal. They succeeded. Learned panic occurs through circuits that link the thalamus and the amygdala. Kandel and his colleagues traced these circuits and described the biochemical processes at work there. They also discovered that the flip side of learned fear – learned safety – implicates a distinct region of the brain, called the striatum, that plays no role at all in learned fear. These discoveries, and parallel ones in other labs, hold out the hope for better drugs to replace the addictive and increasingly discredited benzodiazepines, like Valium. And there’s another benefit of this research. When learned fear is understood biologically, an entire mythical structure of morality becomes, if not untrue exactly, at least obsolete. The outsized neuroses of the sensitive Viennese youth, an echo chamber of past punishments and undeserved shocks, can be cured directly, without having to be brought laboriously into consciousness. We can all be Casanovas, then.

But wasn’t Casanova a monster? The snobbish rake of the Viennese tradition, the Orso or the Anatol, is at best an ass, and at worst a fiend. There are two possible responses. One is to say that the predatory evil in Casanova as intertwined with the social weakness of his prey;  their poverty, insecurity, naiveté, fear. A world of Casanovas – aided by advanced pharmacology, nano-surgery, or simply by rational education and effective governance – cannot be a world of victims. In its guiltless curiosity and implicit equality, this is a Utopia of science. The other response is to say that descriptions of Utopia are really meant as a kind of painful comedy. Utopia – that reasonable, morally defensible world – resembles our actual world so little that, after we laugh, we may be a less likely to defend commonplace injustice with our typical, fatuous confidence. Utopia, in this sense, is the enemy of myth, because it reminds us of the inadequacy of our moral awareness. Or, you might say: it helps us remember what’s wrong.

Yukon Gold Rush

This week the New York Times Magazine is publishing a long story I wrote about Shawn Ryan and Cathy Wood, whose discoveries have launched a new Klondike stampede.  On the surface this piece on the new Yukon Gold Rush looks like a classic tale of pluck and luck, but the deeper reality is that Shawn and Cathy used some big changes in the world around them to solve a mystery that had been around for more than 100 years: where did the great placer deposits of the Klondike gold rush come from?

On one hand: two isolated prospectors, who started out picking wild mushrooms for cash in the burned forests around Dawson City. On the other hand: the vast flows and structures of market cycles and technological development. There is something almost dizzying about this fateful, even mysterious connection between individual action and historical change.

Gold is a strange commodity. We think of it as inherently valuable, but of course it’s value rises and falls like any product. In some ways the gold market is just like the market for wild mushrooms. In both cases, something found just sitting there in the ground is convertible into cash. That’s nature’s bounty. But actually making this transaction requires participation in a crazy commercial network, with immense risk.  In one of the most famous polemics ever written, the uncertainty of the marketplace is described like this:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

That’s Karl Marx, of course. What makes gold different from mushrooms, and from all other commodities, is that gold actually signifies safety, protection from risk. Underlying my story is this contradiction. Gold, the “safest” asset, has a price as volatile as fear.

Writing about Shawn and Cathy’s discovery made me ask myself: if gold can’t really protect us, what can? While my piece is a story about gold, it is also a story about a marriage, love, partnership, and about the fragile miracles of cooperation that allow us to accomplish difficult things. Although I enjoy being a magazine writer, I suspect that the full dimensions of this story ultimately requires a format more sympathetic to melodrama. The 24 hour summer sun and the dark winter noontimes, the flow of water (and of snow in that fatal avalanche), the almost musical boasting and gossiping; these could be a kind of stage for the contradictory desires associated with both gold and love.

Below are a few snapshots and captions that track my reporting.

As you cross into the Yukon by air, you notice that the roads disappear.

In California the hippies have VW vans. In the Yukon they have old fixed wing aircraft.

Whitehorse, the territorial capital, has about 20,000 people. The Yukon covers nearly 500,000 square kilometers, most of it nearly unpopulated.

Our small plane into the staking camp slowly puttered over the mountains at about 100 mph. It felt like traveling in a kite, but louder.

A frozen lake makes a handy airfield.

A little Ski-doo is light enough to throw onto a plane and take into the field. Shawn uses it to ferry supplies.

The guys out at the staking camp live in a tent with a wood stove. They try not to let the stove go out.

This view of the interior of the tent reminded me of old photos of miners.

The stakes in the foreground are used to mark claims.The barrels contain fuel.

The small orange dot in the upper center of the picture is a stake. The line in the snow is made by the snowshoes of the man who put in the stake.

Another track made by a man staking claims.

Information about exploration plans is exchanged and concealed through seemingly casual conversation, as in a poker game.

We didn’t really take that hippie aircraft. Our vehicle was a Maule M-7-235 on skis. I asked the pilot how long we had to go before we saw any sign of human habitation. “If you miss Santa Claus’ house, then Europe,” he said.

Recent News About Daniel Coronell

[UPDATE, January 23, 2010: Daniel was named on Friday to be the new Vice-President in charge of news for Univision. This will bring him to Miami, though he will continue his essential column in Semana.]

In 2005-2007, my friend Daniel Coronell, a columnist for Semana and director of Noticias Uno, lived here in the San Francisco Bay Area, having been forced to flee Colombia due to threats against his life by criminals in the circle of then President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe. Recently, it was revealed that Uribe directed Colombia’s internal security agency, the DAS, to undertake surveillance of Coronell and others, illegally. As the cases related to the illegal surveillance have proceeded, some of the alleged perpetrators have themselves fled the country, urged by Uribe himself.

Here, the ex-President  shows his astounding arrogance, admitting in a radio interview that he urged a member of his administration accused of illegal acts to seek asylum in Panama. As described by Reporters without borders:

Former DAS director, María del Pilar Hurtado, the chief potential witness to the former head of state’s involvement in the corruption of this top intelligence service, has just conveniently obtained political asylum in Panama. While denying discussing her asylum request with her, Uribe himself confirmed that he advised his close associates to seek asylum abroad in a long interview he gave yesterday to RCN radio, to among other questioners, his former vice-president and journalist by profession, Francisco Santos !

The full radio interview is here (in Spanish).

Here, helpfully subtitled by Reporters without borders, is a video of Daniel watching Uribe make almost beautifully fatuous expressions of moral authority on the topic of the responsibilities of the press.

Manila Suggestions?

I’ve been in the Philippines for a couple of weeks; not much time to see things outside the family circle, too much fun eating, swimming, and chatting. I did get to the Araneta Coliseum to see the San Miguel Beermen play in the league semi-finals, under the management of my famous cousin-in-law, Hector Calma. Unfortunately, they lost the game, but they came yesterday afternoon to win decisively, taking the best of seven series, and earning a place in the finals this week.

It looks like I will have an unexpected day free tomorrow, and perhaps part of the next day. I’m interested in suggestions from kindred spirits about things to take a look at related to planning, public transportation, sensors, education, and science. (Already in mind: going out to the University of the Philippines; I’d like to stop by the library at the School of Urban and Regional Planning and see what they have.)

Institute for the Future: An Interview about Quantified Self

ThIFTFe Institute for the Future in Palo Alto has a long history in Silicon Valley. A non-profit, it makes its living translating the futuristic visions of technical people into pragmatic frameworks for understanding possible futures.

IFTF hosted the second Quantified Self Show&Tell, and since then they’ve been curious about and supportive of this extended investigation into the meaning of what more academic observers call “personal informatics.” Recently, Bradley Kreit interviewed me about the implications of The Quantified Self for the IFTF Health Horizons Report. His interview and excellent editing helped me express what I think is happening in a fairly concise way. I’ve republished it with Bradley’s permission below.

IFTF Health Horizons

Gary Wolf is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and the co-host of The Quantified Self, a blog dedicated to self-knowledge through numbers ( At Wired, he has been the author of a number of the magazine’s most frequently cited articles, including “The Curse of Xanadu,” about Ted Holmes Nelson and the invention of hypertext; “The World According to Woz,” about Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; and “The Wisdom of St. Marshall, Holy Fool,” about Marshall McLuhan. He has also written about Piotr Wozniak, creator of the memory program SuperMemo, and recently about Craigslist and its founder, Craig Newmark.

IFTF: The phenomenon of the quantified self is an early form of personal health forecasting. What is the idea behind it?

GW: Numbers play a key role in analyzing all kinds of phenomena, from the largest phenomena of the cosmos using radio telescopes to the smallest phenomena in the universe—the analysis, say, of subatomic particles. We have statistical tools of great sophistication for gathering data and finding meaning in it. It seems only natural that we would want to use some of these techniques to gain knowledge about ourselves.

This is so obvious that it might almost seem trivial, except when you realize that we usually associate self-knowledge not with numbers but with words—a kind of inner voice of consciousness and conscience. I think that supplementing that with quantitative tools is one of the most interesting trends emerging in our culture today. This interest is based on the highly practical results of experiments that people are doing in collaborative diagnosis and collaborative evaluation of treatments for chronic conditions, as well as experiments that involve the analysis and acceleration of learning.

IFTF: In some of your writing about the quantified self, you’ve talked about a concept called a macroscope. What do you mean by that, particularly as it relates to health?

GW: The word macroscope has been used quite a few times in quite a few contexts. It’s an interesting word; its meaning is trying to emerge and everyone’s taking a crack at it, but it’s finally settling down into a useful concept.

My meaning is taken from Jesse Ausubel, a climate scientist who is also a professor at The Rockefeller University. It simply refers to gathering data in nature through distributed methods, often through sensor networks, and then analyzing it on a computer. The particular pieces of technology for gathering this data are familiar; it is how they are now being combined that is interesting. We are beginning to see them being used in the context of a social process that produces data that would be inaccessible to an individual researcher trying to build this network from scratch.

The macroscope concept can be applied to the many individuals keeping track of some aspect or aspects of their lives. You have people tracking sleep, diet, exercise, productivity, symptoms, and so on. With all this tracking, a tremendous amount of health-related data is being produced. When that data is analyzed, you learn things that would be much harder to learn using the traditional methods of a clinical trial or a population study.

IFTF: Do you expect self-tracking will become widespread over the next ten years?

GW: I think it will become a mainstream, almost ubiquitous practice and at the same time will become invisible because it will be blend in with daily life. I think a good comparison is with the fate of computing. At one time, the people who used computers tended to be the kind of people who liked it. Over time, the process of computing has been incorporated into so many technologies and devices that many of the things we do that involve computing don’t seem like computing at all. Think of using a pedometer or step counter, or standing on a digital scale. The computing component is disappearing, and the self-tracking aspect will, too.

Self-tracking will disappear because it will be taken for granted. The quantitative tools in our lives will produce data that will be incorporated into some feedback mechanism; we will look at those mechanisms and they will influence us in some way. For instance, we will get biometric data in the form of feedback about how well we’re eating and sleeping, but we won’t have to peel back that information and do the analysis ourselves. Of course, the people who will be making these products and services will be highly aware of their tracking components, but if they’re successful, users won’t think about those aspects.

IFTF: Do you foresee any difficulties with privacy or concerns over control of information? Will individuals not want to share the detailed and intimate information that will be collected about them?

GW: Although gathering personal data will become mainstream, I don’t think most people will want to share their data. We can identify some people as sharer types with respect to their health and biometric data; they are closely linked to the pioneer type because they have a vision of what sharing may bring. But for the most part I think the benefits of the macroscope will be very hard to achieve under a system in which people can be punished harshly on the basis of their numbers. And we live in a world where if you have bad numbers, you will be punished.

IFTF: Isn’t one of the core challenges that the data is most useful in large-scale aggregations, but to get that you have to be able to get people to share their data?

GW: Let’s back up a bit: useful to whom? The data is very useful to you, whether or not it’s aggregated. You can see the macroscope as having multiple guises: there’s the social macroscope, which aggregates data across individuals, and that’s where the privacy issues come in, but you can also interpret the macroscope on an individual level. I can have multiple sensors at multiple times, all aggregating the data for me; I can do experiments of one, and the data never has to leave my computer.

IFTF: So how do you bridge that gap to make the social macroscope feasible?

GW: We need to articulate as clearly as possible that there must be a transformation in terms of how we look at what health and health care mean. As long as health care is considered from the perspective of the individual, there are many benefits that we’ll be missing.