Alan Alda and Eric Kandel discuss science, psychiatry and the media

The actor and Nobel laureate recount, with humor and candor, how they became interested in science

Emmy-Award winning actor Alan Alda, Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, MD, and American Psychiatric Association President Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, open the APA Annual Meeting with a "Dialogue on Science, Psychiatry and the Media." (Photo by David Hathcox/Psychiatric News) [divider]Dr. Eric Kandel is the only psychiatrist to win a Nobel Prize. Alan Alda gained fame as Army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. Both have brought public awareness to science from their appearances on PBS. And both received equal amounts of respect and laughter as they told a packed audience at the Javitz Center how they became interested in science and psychiatry.

Their appearance on May 4 was part of the 2014 American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting in New York. Dr. Kandel, Alda and APA President  took part in an hour-long "Dialogue on Science, Psychiatry and the Media" moderated by APA President DrJeffrey Lieberman.

Dr. Kandel won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on the molecular and cellular mechanisms of learning and memory. He became known to the public for his many appearances on the Brain Series, hosted by Charlie Rose on PBS.

[pullquote align="right"]"Saying Eric Kandel is a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist is like saying Roger Federer is a tennis player and LeBron James is a basketball player." — APA President Jeffrey Lieberman, MD[/pullquote]

Dr. Lieberman referred to him as "the other psychiatrist from Vienna," alluding to the legendary Sigmund Freud. "Saying Eric Kandel is a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist is like saying Roger Federer is a tennis player and LeBron James is a basketball player," he quipped.

Dr. Lieberman said he was astounded that Kandel and Alda did not make the 2014 Time Magazine's the 100 Most Influential People in the World and saddened that there were only five scientists in the group.

Commenting on the choices, Alda said, "I am personally glad that there were 27 entertainers. But no one should take it seriously. They chose people who can sell magazines."

Dr. Kandel said, "I don't think scientists are out to get attention for themselves. It's the science that gets the attention. I have always lived by the philosophy take care of your science, and your science will take care of you."[divider]

Kandel: "My wife encouraged me to go into science even though there was no money in it"

Dr. Kandel said he first studied intellectual history to understand human motivation, but that his friend, the art historian and psychoanalyst Dr. Ernst Kris, told him to understand human motivation you have to study psychiatry.  He said he realized he could not do clinical psychiatry, which he enjoyed, and science at the same time. "My wife, Denise, encouraged me to go into science even though there was no money in it; she has never said that again in our 58 years of marriage together."

To understand the human brain, Dr. Kandel studied animals, which his colleagues at the time said made no sense. "I was fortunate to not know a lot about science back then as I might have listened."

He discovered that science was fun.

I found to my amazement that doing science is so different from reading books about it. Doing experiments is so fantastically interesting. You work with your own hands; there is a sensual pleasure involved; you discuss your findings with other people.

He said he enjoyed research so much that when he told his wife that he was a candidate for the Nobel Prize, she told him: "I hope you don't win. You won't do any more research. You will be too busy giving lectures."

Dr. Kandel told the audience that psychiatrists need to devote more time to research. "The people who have made some of the greatest progress in psychiatry were the psychologist Aaron Beck, who gave us cognitive therapy, and the neurologist Helen Mayberg, who developed deep brain stimulation."

Dr. Kandel said Freud tried to prove that psychoanalysis had a neurobiological basis. "No other psychoanalyst was interested at the time. He was unable to do it but he knew empirical science was necessary to make progress."

Noting that other sciences have advanced because of their emphasis on research, Dr. Kandel said the training of students in psychiatry must be reconsidered. "Students should spend their first year or two studying a shared discipline," he said. "The field of psychiatry must become more empirical, as are the fields of neurology and biology, in order to progress."[divider]

Alda: Science needs 'storytelling and emotion'

Alda said he was always interested and curious about science, saying that he tried to combine products in his parent's medicine cabinet and make them explode. "Luckily I couldn't reach very high so I only had baking soda and toothpaste."

He also spoke about his family history of mental illness. Alda's mother has schizophrenia and was hospitalized. "My dad and I never talked about it," he said. Alda told the audience he takes Zoloft every day.

As a result of playing a doctor on M*A*S*H, Alda said, he was asked to host the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, which ran for 11 seasons. "I realized that PBS initially wanted me to be a front man and introduce the scientists, Alda said. "But I constantly asked the scientists to explain things to me so that I could understand them as well as the public."

Alda's communication of science was so popular that PBS asked him to host the science series The Human Spark and Brains on Trial.

Alda is a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, whose goal is to develop innovative programs that enable scientists to communicate more effectively with the public.

Science, becomes accessible when scientists find a way to communicate that includes storytelling and emotion – the things that ordinary people are accustomed to taking part in when they exchange information. I believe that the more scientists can express themselves in a personal way, and the more people who are in treatment do that, we are making common, simple humanity available to everyone.

Alda, who had the luck of getting the final word, drew a large laugh when he said, "I always wanted to say this to a group of psychiatrists. I am sorry, but we have to stop. Your time is up."


Watch a video of their talk


Elsevier Connect Contributor

David LevineDavid Levine (@Dlloydlevine) is co-chairman of Science Writers in New York (SWINY) and a member the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). He served as director of media relations at the American Cancer Society and as senior director of communications at the NYC Health and Hospitals Corp. He has written for Scientific American. the Los Angeles Times, More magazine, and Good Housekeeping and was a contributing editor at Physician's Weekly for 10 years. He has a BA and MA from The Johns Hopkins University.

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