Neil White's Reviews > Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer
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's review
May 31, 2011

really liked it
Read from January 02 to February 27, 2012 — I own a copy

I see a lot of varying opinions on this book, and I'm honestly not sure what some people expected. Some say he's not scientific and academic enough, some say he's too hard on science, some say his claims are specious at best. I didn't find any of this to be the case.

I was familiar with the name Jonah Lehrer from his frequent contributions to the wonderful show/podcast RadioLab, and it was with that approach that I went into this book. If you're familiar with RadioLab, you know it's a science-based show that removes the hard science, and focuses on the wonder of curiosity and discovery. That pleasure that comes from realizing the unexpected connections between things, explaining the unexplainable, and just trying to make sense of it all. It's a fantastic show, and if you've never listened before I urge you to - it's not a stretch to say it might just change how you think.

But I digress - this book isn't RadioLab, and never claims to be. Instead it's about how certain scientific discoveries, some of which are considered basic knowledge now, were often precluded or overlapped by similar artistic discoveries. Artists, Lehrer argues, often "knew" things about the human condition before scientists did, even if they couldn't necessarily articulate and explain it like science eventually did.

He focuses on eight examples, or claims:

Walt Whitman's poetry first explored the idea of the "human body as an irreducible whole", upending the conventional wisdom of the time that the body & mind/spirit were separate entities. Scientists such as Antonio Damasio later proved this with experiments that showed that our bodies/nervous system can learn and be aware of things long before our conscious mind is.

George Eliot's ideas of individual freedom and insistence on the ability to change ourselves presaged ideas of neuroplasticity, and the brain's ability to do just that. It's difficult not to think of such things nowadays as common sense, but the "nature" side of "nature vs nurture" was very in vogue at the time - the modern idea of "becoming a new you" just wasn't there.

Auguste Escoffier was insistent before almost anyone that taste involved a "fifth taste" of savory sensation, as well as the sense of smell, played a huge impact on a person's ability to enjoy food. It seems crazy to think that back then, most food was served cold, and flavor combinations weren't taken into account. This was later vindicated by the discovery of umami, and findings on the power of sense of smell, and how it is tied directly to the hippocampus - the oldest part of the brain, unlike the other senses.

Marcel Proust wrote almost exclusively about memories (sickly and confined indoors most of his life, it was all had). Therefore he understood its fallibility, as well as its ability to spring forth unexpectedly from the strangest of sensory stimuli (such as the famous madeline in his masterpiece "In Search Of Lost Time") - long before neurologists caught up to him about just how memory works, or often doesn't work.

"[Paul] Cezanne's epiphany was that our impressions require interpretation; to look is to create what you see.” His masterful post-impressionist works seem to understand that perception is such a huge part of seeing – his paintins (especially his later ones) at a glance seem incomplete – like blurry, unfinished sketches. Our mind fills in the blanks, which neuroscientists later discovered is exactly what happens all the time, anytime we perceive just about anything. (See for yourself -

Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece “The Rite Of Spring” literally caused a riot when it first debuted. It was screeching, cacophonic noise unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. It was punishing and ugly, exactly how Igor wanted it. The brilliance of this work is that now it is considered a masterpiece – our brains have in effect “learned” that this is music. Stravinsky seemed to have an understanding that our brains can take even the harshest dissonance and make it music if it’s done right.

Gertrude Stein attempted to deconstruct language to make it meaningless. She failed, but in doing so found a larger truth about language and its inextricable ties to brain itself. Even her most wild subconscious, free-form ramblings make grammatical sense, if not cognitive sense. (He gives the famous Chomsky example of “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”) Linguists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker are still championing this idea of a language instinct.

Virginia Woolf was one of the famous pioneers of stream-of-consciousness writing in the early 20th century. Before this time, most novels were the standard third-person omniscient narrators, but Woolf challenged this idea by not just getting directly into her character’s narration, but into their deepest selves, and showing that the “self” as many neurologists and psychologists now think of it, may not be more than the random firing of synapses, impulse after impulse, not at all separate from the body or mind. (This idea of the self is still up for contention more so than the others.)

I see a lot of laughable reviews along the lines of “No he was NOT a neurologist!” that make me think the point here was missed entirely by some. This is not equating art with science, nor is it championing one over the other. What Lehrer here is doing, in layman’s terms, with little hard science (yet another criticism I see a lot of) is illuminating certain paths which art and science have both crossed. To say that Cezanne was specifically thinking of ocular nerves refracting and processing light rays, or that George Eliot was contemplating neuroplasticity while writing her novels is ridiculous. They weren’t, and nobody is saying otherwise, Lehrer is just showing how these two branches, which too often have little to say to each other, may cross each other in some sort of Venn diagram more often than either realizes.

I will admit I was doubtful about some of the connections made, and some of them worked better than others – the Cezanne and Proust chapters worked much better than George Eliot, for example, but as I read on I began to realize Lehrer wasn't actually claiming artistic discovery as much as insight. No, Proust was not a neuroscientist, but as it turns out, he had a few ideas in common with them. The epilogue really summed up Lehrer’s aim with this work, which was to show how art and science aren’t always mutually exclusive, and could benefit from each other immensely. In that respect I think Lehrer has succeeded admirably in his debut. If you’re a fan of nontechnical “pop-science” you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

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