Liane Lefairve

Vienna 2012


Of all the forms of memory, the one that has most fascinated the molecular biologist Eric Kandel, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the subject, is spatial memory. One primary reason for this fascination, as he explains in his In Search of Memory, in which mixes autobiography with a history of his scientific field, is a terrible loss. As a young child, he was uprooted in the wake of his family’s escape in 1938 to the United States from the anti-Semitism of Vienna that would eventually lead to the Holocaust. He has been haunted by this loss—of a time, of a world, of a people, coming together as a sense of place—all his life.

There are other reasons why spatial memory is especially important to Kandel. He points out that the idea that the ability to represent space is built into our minds is an old one; it goes back to Kant, who pictured people “as being born with principles for ordering space and time, so that when other sensations were elicited—be they objects, melodies, or tactile experiences—they are automatically interwoven in specific ways with space and time.”

Perhaps this deep cognitive importance is why spatial memories evoke such empathy. Olfactory, acoustic impressions, tastes, and textures elicit memories. But the opposite is not true. We cannot reconstruct them in our minds the way we can architectural settings. In addition, architectural spaces come back to us vividly in dreams in a way that sounds and smells and taste and tactile impressions do not.
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