With a Nobel Prize (with Arvid Carlsson & Paul Greengard) for his work on learning and memory, Eric Kandel’s is a towering figure in the science of learning. Yet he is barely known among learning professionals. His interest in memory came from an interest in psychoanalysis but also reflection on his own experiences as a child in Vienna and his escape from the Nazis in 1939. But it was solid science and laboratory work in the US, and the realisation that memory does not reside in neurons but in the reconfiguration of their connections that drove him forward.
Learning is memory
Learning, for Kandel, is the ability to acquire new ideas from experience and retain them as memories (a simple fact often overlooked). His insight was to first recognise that the functional and biochemical features of nerves and synapses in snails, worms and flies are not substantially different from mammals and humans. His work on giant marine snails uncovered not only the physiological but molecular pathways in short-term memory but also storage in long-term memory through spaced practice.
Initially, he focused on implicit (procedural) memories such as habituation, sensitisation and classical conditioning skills and habits, but then moved into explicit (declarative) facts and events, where he made further discoveries about the molecular mechanisms in memory. He then moved on to the identification of memory at the molecular level showing that long-terms memory used protein synthesis, namely chemical change in the process of memorisation, unlike short-term memory. Short term memory storage modifies existing proteins and alters existing synaptic connections. Long-term storage involves gene activation, the creation of new protein and new synaptic connections. Kandel therefore found the link between experience and biology. Learning could now be seen as experience captured as cellular change.
Relevance to learning
Even without Kandel's chemical and physiological confirmation, we have an abundance of psychological evidence showing that the distinction between short and long-term memory is clear. Why then is it so often ignored? If this seems a little too abstract consider how hooked education and training is on short-term memory experiences and assessment. We know how deficient short-term memory is because there is no fundamental chemical and physiological change, whereas long-term memory does involve chemical and physiological change. A simple change in focus away from short-term, once-only, event based teaching would radically alter almost everything in education and training. These discoveries also open up the possibility, not only of enhancing and curing disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, but understanding how learning actually works, leading to significant improvements in practice.
Now that we have strong physiological, cellular and molecular evidence for the difference between short and long term memory, we can apply technology to enhancing learning through spaced practice. At a very basic level, recording all lectures for repeated access to the content by students is just one of many changes one could implement in education. Improving attention, feedback and reinforcement to improve the move from short to long term memory by avoiding cognitive overload, eith better elaboration and deeper processing is surely what technology promises to deliver.
Kandel has identified some of the chemical pathways of memory and therefore learning, for both short and long-term memory. This is important as an understanding of the physiological mechanisms in memory may hold answers to questions of improving memory and learning. In practice, the very basic lessons from memory theory are ignored in education and training. Largely, we have sheep-dip courses, cognitive overload, poor encoding, too much emphasis on facts, little in the way of spaced practice and cramming leading to temporary success in summative assessment. The net result is little, long-term retention and application. We teach and train to forget.
Kandel, E. R. (2006). In search of memory: The emergence of a new science of mind. New York: W.W. Norton & Co
Kandel, E. R. (2012). The age of insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain : from Vienna 1900 to the present. New York: Random House