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Proust Was a Neuroscientist
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Proust Was a Neuroscientist

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3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  5,107 ratings  ·  582 reviews
In this technology-driven age, it’s tempting to believe that science can solve every mystery. After all, science has cured countless diseases and even sent humans into space. But as Jonah Lehrer argues in this sparkling debut, science is not the only path to knowledge. In fact, when it comes to understanding the brain, art got there first.
Taking a group of artists — a pain
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Hardcover, 256 pages
Published November 1st 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published 2007)
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Community Reviews

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Maria
One of my most admired scientists is Dr. Eric Kandel, not only for his research work regarding the reductionist molecular approach of how our memory works (which got him the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine in the year 2000), but also for his remarkable ability explaining in such an elegant prose how our mind works through art perception. This book is not about Dr. Kandel's life or scientific contributions, but the reason I dare to open with this information is because the author, Jonah Leher wor ...more
Jafar
Lehrer used to be a lab technician in a neuroscience lab. His lab work involved investigating memory. He would read Proust while waiting for his experiments to finish. Then it dawned to him that Proust was right about memory long before modern neuroscience got it right. And that was the forming idea for this book. Lehrer describes a few artists and their works to show that a lot of times artists discover truths about human nature while scientists of their time still have it wrong. Art foretellin ...more
Tim
Jun 03, 2008 Tim rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: oliver sacks fans, artists, alicias
Proust Was a Neuroscientist turned out to be the book I'd been looking to read for a long time. Apparently there have been quite a few books prior to this one about the "third culture," the bridge between art and science (and unfortunately I've not read any of them) —Lehrer mentions E.O. Wilson's Consilience and Ian McEwan's Saturday (a kind of update on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway ) as unsuccessful and successful works on the subject, respectively— but I was very pleased with the scope and ...more
Jenna Los
The premise of this book is great, but the author fails to make good enough connections half the time. A few of the chapters are fabulous and he should have quit while he was ahead, but I suppose that would have left a short book. My advice is to only read these chapters: 3 - Auguste Escoffier and The Essence of Taste (best chapter); 4 - Marcel Proust and The Method of Memory; and Igor Stravinsky and The Source of Music (2nd best chapter). Chapters 5 & 7 are also okay if you have more time, ...more
Catherine
You have no idea how much it pains me to dislike a book that Oliver Sacks hails as brilliant, but dear god, I found this tepid, unproven, and faintly ridiculous in turn. Lehrer never actually proves his thesis - that artists of several kinds anticipated the discoveries of neuroscience by several decades. Instead he describes a neuroscientific discovery and reads back into the work of selected artists a definitive revelation they never sought or articulated - the cause and effect he sees plainly ...more
Steve
A fun and quick read that attempts to show how late-19th and early-20th Century artists presaged modern neuroscience. Each artist gets his or her own chapter and is paired with a scientific correlate. Here is the order of the pairings:

1) Walt Whitman - Feeling
2) George Eliot - Freedom
3) Auguste Escoffier - Taste
4) Marcel Proust - Memory
5) Paul Cezanne - Sight
6) Igor Stravinsky - Music
7) Gertrude Stein - Language
8) Virginia Woolf - Self

My only major problem with the book is that the author repeat
...more
Jennifer de Guzman
Jonathan Lehrer examines the avante garde work of eight artists -- one poet (Walt Whitman), four novelists (George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf), one painter (Paul Cezanne), one composer (Igor Stravinsky), and one chef (Auguste Escoffier) -- and shows how it anticipated scientific principles that would later be discovered. The eight essays are absorbing, and Lehrer writes about science in a way that is accessible and enlightening for those more familiar with the human ...more
K
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David
This is a truly perceptive book, about the linkages between art/language/music/cooking/writing and the science of the brain. Each chapter focuses on a different artist, and the insights of his/her artistry into the workings of the brain. I especially appreciated the chapter about Escoffier, the French chef who invented the concept of a restaurant menu. He discovered and put to use the taste of umami, a distinct reaction of taste buds to glutamate. He had a deep understanding about the effects of ...more
Oroboros72
I think that Lehrer's thesis is flawed. When he says that art is ahead of science, it doesn't really mean anything to me. Proust describes a connection between smell and memory before neuroscientists demonstrated that there was one, but that is not because he is an artist or because he had some special insight into memory that scientists couldn't or didn't have. He describes memory in this way because he is a human and that is how the memory system is set up. Before Proust, I am sure many many p ...more
Elaine
What an unusual book, about art and science, and how artists:poets, novelists, painters and even a chef intuited how the self sees and feels long before scientists did. The book Age of Wonder shows that 18th and early 19th century poets and scientists considered themselves collaborators.

Those happy days had ended by the time Walt Whitman arrived on the scene, allowing nothing to be deemed truth unless it could be observed, measured and manipulated.

Nevertheless, Whitman, who cared for soldiers in
...more
Dan Russell
Oct 03, 2011 Dan Russell rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: science lovers
Lehrer does a clever thing by taking a slice through contemporary neuroscience as seen from the perspective of different authors. Considering the nature of emotions by reading Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” or memory by looking through the eyes of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” allows the author to weave together science as revealed by art. I’m not sure I believe his basic argument that art precedes science—he’s cherry-picking the data here to only show positive examples and ignores the vast ...more
Amanda
I rarely read nonfiction. When I do I expect it to be accessible, interesting, and to inform me. The best kind of books, fiction or nonfiction, are the ones that make me think differently. This book completely changed the way I thought about literary heavy hitters and artists of all kinds. It concerns a subject near and dear to my heart: the relationship between art and science. Being an English major, I'm more often than not spotted with a Stephen King novel in my hand, Hemingway or McCarthy if ...more
James
Lehrer argues that many 20th and 21st-century discoveries of neuroscience are actually re-discoveries of insights made earlier by various artists, including Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Paul Cézanne, Igor Stravinsky, and, as mentioned in the title, Marcel Proust. It is really an exploration into the old Science vs. Art debate. As such it has some refreshing and thought-provoking ideas, although they are somewhat speculative. Lehrer takes the reader into the dusty corners of literary history, po ...more
Francisco
A very interesting, well written well researched book about the parallels between art and neuroscience as shown in the works of artists such as Whitman, Proust, Stravinsky, Cezanne. Woolf's treatment of the self and Proust's treatment of memory, for example, correspond to the discoveries about how our brain works. If you believe, as I do, that science is an art and that art is a science, this book will be fascinating. Not the least of it's merits are the light it sheds on the life of the artist' ...more
Paula Cappa
Jonah Lehrer writes a book here that relates art to science in a very compelling way. Of course, it's entertaining but also enlightening. I found this book to be about truth and while there are absolute truths and relative truths, this book is about the relative truths. Reading the chapter on Walt Whitman "The Substance of Feeling" ("we do not have a body, we ARE a body") is something I will read again and again for its insightful and literary thinking. In the chapter on Proust, the questions ar ...more
Κατερίνα Τσαγκαράκη
Σε ορισμένα κεφάλαια, είναι εντυπωσιακές οι παρατηρήσεις του, ενώ σε κάποια άλλα κάπως λιγότερο πειστικές. Πάντως, το βιβλίο διαβάζεται με αμείωτο ενδιαφέρον και προσφέρει καινούρια και ενδιαφέρουσα γνώση.

Περισσότερα εδώ: http://anagnoseisvivlion.wordpress.co...
Mag
Aug 24, 2010 Mag rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Karen, Susan, Denise, Cynthia and anybody interested in art and science.
The profound understanding of human nature we feel good art shows is officially not an illusion. Lehrer discusses the intimations great artists had about the nature of the brain, consciousness, perception, and senses that have been confirmed by recent scientific research. In particular, he chooses a few great writers, a painter, a composer, and a chef and shows how their insights proved to be true in light of modern experimental science. He talks about Walt Whitman, and his insight into the lack ...more
Trisha
"It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is grope for the truth even thought it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of critcism." Karl Popper

The overall theme is that art and science need each other to form the most complete picture. Although I enjoyed the whole book, but I really identified with Chapter
...more
Jessica
I really loved this book. Then again, I am a geek. Anyone who is a dedicated RadioLab listener will recognize many of the stories of neuroscience that Lehrer tells, as several have been featured on that program, as has Lehrer. And actually, as a reader, this is a good thing. It's kind of like when you'd hit a new topic in a class in school and you'd already had some experience with that topic from somewhere else, so you didn't have to start from ground zero. And with tough content, that's helpfu ...more
Nathan
Lehrer has a clever idea for a nonfiction book: take a retroactive scan across the arts and expose scientific visionaries who "predicted" neuroscientific theory ahead of their time. Sampling mostly from popular 19th and 20th century artists (Woolf, Cézanne, Stein, Proust, etc), Lehrer's greatest feat is to successfully find the red thread tying together post-impressionist painters, upscale French chefs, modernist writers, composers, and poets. His main thesis is that each of these arts have cont ...more
Courtney Johnston
Jonah Lehrer argues through eight case studies - Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf - that "celebrated artists discovered truths - real, tangible truths - about the mind, anticipating the findings of neuroscience." From the blurb:

We learn how Proust revealed the fallibility of memory, how George Eliot understood the brain's malleable nature, how the French chef Escoffier intuited umami (the fifth taste), how
...more
James Mcgann
Since I myself recently became a neuroscientist, I was intrigued to read this book I had heard good things about. And it was a good read, mostly. Lehrer's main thesis, which he tries to argue in each chapter, is that artists, because of their intuitive and wholistic way of thinking about the human condition, have come to the realization of certain neurological truths that science is just beginning to elucidate. This includes the fallacy of the brain/body dichotomy (Whitman), the process of thoug ...more
Jakub
Yes, Jonah Lehrer is a gifted writer. He has a wonderful way with words. He’s extremely knowledgeable and well-read, and he’s also very good at discussing a variety of complicated topics. I should have fallen in love with this book. It attempts to combine my two great loves: the arts, and the sciences. It covers a diversity of creative enterprises, from autobiographical writing to cooking, and connects them to fascinating new insights provided by neuroscience, biochemistry, and so on. So what th ...more
Jane
This book says a lot of fascinating things, but I can't escape the feeling that it is watered down science and simplified literary criticism. All in all, it is a good read with plenty of thought-provoking topics condensed into eight chapters. Not too challenging of a read, but it points to and references works that are more challenging and sheds some light on the ridiculousness of the "cultural divide" between sciences and humanities. The problem with this book,is that it assumes the popular tak ...more
Sheri
Although Lehrer sets up the argument that the arts are important investigations akin to scientific investigation, he doesn't really back up his thesis statement in the text itself. Mostly this book is his love letter to particular artists. He tends to focus on one artist per artistic discipline, and in focusing on that one artist's contributions he sets up that artist against all of art history prior to him or her. The result is that we get the sense not that art is an ongoing investigation, but ...more
Rae
In this collection of artists and scientific explorations, Lehrer attempts to show how art can explain what science cannot. Cezanne painted swatches of color that show how our eyes really do see - not as pixels but as swatches. Virginia Wolfe knew the mind was a fragmented collection of sensations held together by a self that arose from that and science has still not been able to find if there is a where for that greater self.

Very enjoyable book and unlike How We Decide, not filled with scientif
...more
Adam
I'd have to say I have pretty mixed feelings about this book. Some of the vignettes were very interesting, some of them not so much. Some of the vignettes were exceptionally incisive in their commentary, some of them not so much. Two things you could be sure of: they'd be written as if they were the cleverest things put to paper and there'd be a chunk of scientific jargon that i wouldn't understand after the part that made some sense.
Personally, I found the Stravinski piece the most interesting,
...more
Julie
Oh this book! So enjoyable. An investigation of how artists clearly pre-sage what neuroscience is just discovering. Now I've got to read some of the books he refers to. Middlemarch by George Elliot, Leaves of Grass by Whitman.

And there are chapters on vision, taste, sound, memory, brain plasticity...

And the Stravinsky chapter clearly and so very simply explains why some music is so emotional. There are pieces that set up a pattern your mind desires to hear again, yet the composer gives you vari
...more
Vicky
Here is a smart and fascinating book about the parallel between the art and science. What genius perceived by insight and intuition, today neuroscience proved to be true. Proust understood how our memory worked, Cézanne created a new way of paintings to change our perception of a human sight, Stravinsky changed the concept of a sound and Virginia Woolf tried to understand the construction of our self as a process. Auguste Escoffier, famous chef, created the modern "French cuisine" based on the v ...more
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“Every brilliant experiment, like every great work of art, starts with an act of imagination. Unfortunately, our current culture subscribes to a very narrow definition of truth. If something can’t be quantified and calculated, then it can’t be true. Because this strict scientific approach has explained so much, we assume that it can explain everything. But every method, even the experimental method, has limits. Take the human mind. Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details; they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.” 10 likes
“Like a work of art, we exceed our materials. Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery. Neither truth alone is our solution, for our reality exists in plural” 8 likes
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