Idols, Heroes and Autographs

John McManamy Health Guide
  • In our dumbed-down, celebrity-centric society, Tom Cruise, who is a high school dropout with no knowledge of psychiatry, gets far more air time for his bizarre views on mental illness than a psychiatrist who is a Nobel Laureate.

    Of course, even the best of us can be dazzled by star power. All I have to do is cast my mind back to the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting in May:

    One of the featured speakers was Eric Kandel, M.D. Dr. Kandel was a boy when the Nazis invaded his hometown of Vienna, Austria. He and his family got out a year later and found a home in Brooklyn, mere days before World War II broke out. Originally interested in becoming a Freudian psychiatrist, Dr. Kandel happened to take an elective course in neurobiology as a medical student at NYU and became hooked on the workings of the brain.
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    His life’s work would be devoted to the biological basis of memory. Ignoring the advice of his mentors, Dr. Kandel decided to investigate the California sea snail. The snail’s large nerve cells conferred the advantage of easy observation, but no one other than Dr. Kandel believed that any findings could be applied to higher life forms.

    As it turned out, Dr. Kandel literally cracked open the neuron. His highly original experiments resulted in a series of groundbreaking findings that were published over a span of five decades. Not only did the lowly sea snail reveal to us how humans store memory and learn, but his work also blazed a trail for those researching the biology of human behavior. In 2000, he shared the Nobel Prize in medicine with two others, the first and only psychiatrist accorded this high honor.

    So, here I was at the APA meeting, with Dr. Kandel scheduled to speak. I arrived 30 minutes early to get a seat up front. To my surprise, he was already seated on stage. I turned to the psychiatrist next to me. “Do you think he’ll think I’m crazy if I go up and ask him for his autograph?” I asked. “For my youngest nephew, of course,” I hastily added.

    “I mean, here we are, treating stupid athletes like gods, getting their autographs, while we pay no attention to really smart people who benefit society,” I went on to say. “What kind of message does that send to kids?” By now the psychiatrist next to me had figured out I wasn’t a professional colleague. But he was amused and quietly encouraged me to get the autograph.

    It took me a good five minutes to get over my fear of being silly. Then I went up and got the autograph – made out to my youngest nephew, of course. Dr. Kandel, I hasten to add, was very gracious. I nearly floated back to my seat. “Got it!” I exulted, trying to restrict my end zone dance to just two somersaults.

    When I got home, I had the autograph framed and shipped to my nephew, who was so delighted to receive it he immediately hung it up over his bed.

    I knew I had done the right thing. In this age of false idols, we need to show our kids who the real heroes are.

Published On: December 19, 2005