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Proust Was a Neuroscientist
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Proust Was a Neuroscientist

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  8,462 ratings  ·  715 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
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published November 1st 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published 2007)
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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
I went into this thinking 1) it was going to be ALL about Proust and 2) I kinda know what Jonah Lehrer is going to say and 3) it will maybe be 3 to 4 stars. But damn. I both over and underestimated it. Crazy brain. I REALLY liked its structure: Proust was one chapter, but there were chapters on Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Paul Cézanne, Igor Stravinsky, etc..

He exceeded my expectations, kept me engaged, and even his Coda at the end was strong. Sometimes, it did feel a bit force
Sep 23, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Apr 19, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Nov 25, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jenna Los
Jan 18, 2008 rated it liked it
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, but ...more
Oct 18, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 12, 2009 rated it did not like it
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
Sep 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Jennifer de Guzman
Sep 06, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Not bad. Some decent biographical criticism of eight figures, reading their works through their biographical facts (this type of interpretation was crushed at the theoretical level by formalism, of course), and then relating the insights derived thereby to one or another neuroscience thesis. Some essays are more tidy than others. The Proust essay, on the one hand, seems to bear out its primary idea about the process of recollection altering the memory recollected, a sort of internal Heisenberg p ...more
May 22, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
K.M. Weiland
Aug 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Incredibly interesting on so many levels. The science was interesting. The art was interesting. The history was interesting. But in the end the link between art and science is really where the whole thing came together in a transcendent way.
Jan Priddy
Jul 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
PROUST WAS A NEUROSCIENTIST by Jonah Lehrer (editor at large for SEED with a blog: “The Frontal Cortex”) documents how “science is not the only path to knowledge” since the arts (novels, symphonies, poetry, paintings, cookbooks!) often precede scientific discoveries. It seems almost everything I learned about the nervous system is wrong, and artists knew this at least a hundred years before science. Lehrer argues for C.P. Snow’s “Third Culture” as a celebration of pluralism and equitable dialogu ...more
Apr 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ebooks
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
Daniel M.
Oct 03, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Mar 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
May 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Wondrous, amazing book. Thank you to my goodread friends who recommended it. A delight from start to finish. I love the insights into both momentous modernist creative works and science. I loved how he covered the senses of taste, sight and hearing as well as memory and consciousness and the structure of language. Diverse, informative and eye-opening.
Ross Bennett
Jan 21, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This was a magnificently enjoyable book when we all still believed it. It was fun to read and one that you'd go away talking about for ages. Then Jonah Lehrer was found to be making up fictitious events and false assertions in a subsequent book. It was terribly embarrassing to all of us who had been citing his works.

Jan 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: human-condition
Proust Was a Neuroscientist is more of an expository piece comparing artistic visions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries with recent discoveries in neuroscience than it is an argument for any direct connection between these two ways of seeing the world. It is broad in its scope and offers much food for thought along the course of the book.

The main body of the book is made up of chapters juxtaposing a particular artist and his or her subjective insights with objectively observed functioni
Feb 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: have, non-fiction
This is when I bemoan the fact that I'm too lazy and not talented enough to write a review worthy of this delightful and brilliant book. I can only babble in clichés: I learned so much. It's a book for all the senses. I understand art and music better. It was a revelation to read about the different thought processes of writers I already (thought) I knew.
This is what Oliver Sacks, who is a scientist, naturalist, neurologist and writer says about this book: Brilliantly illustrated ... amazing ..
Feisty Harriet
I have wanted a book like this for a VERY long time, Lehrer writes eight essays about groundbreaking artists and their work as it is reflected in neurology principles, most of which weren't discovered and principle-ized until well after the artist's work was published (and, more likely, the artist was long dead and gone). This bridge of art and science was glorious in every way and I think I must own this book to flip back through my favorite sections again and again. (Featured artists: Walt Wh ...more
Oct 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 Henderson
Oct 12, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Lina Slavova
May 25, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author of the book, Jonah Lehrer, used to be a technician in a neuroscience lab where he was trying to understand how the mind remembers. It was at that time that he began reading Proust. He realised, to his surprise, that what Proust was describing in prose coincided with the new neuroscientific discoveries about memory. 

This lead to his basic idea of the book: there are many ways of describing reality and each of the methods is capable of generating truth. He goes to show that neuroscience
Margaret Carpenter
Really delightful introduction to some of the fascinating ways in which art and science interact. I am sick to death of the phrase "eminently readable" but if I were to use it, it would be in this review. ...more
What was great about this was how it sent me on tangent to explore the various artists I had not previously encountered. The artists I was already familiar with I enjoyed seeing in a new light. Highly recommended! Very accessible—need not be a neuroscientist, author, poet, composer, chef, or painter to make sense of this book. Three cheers for the human experience!
Sep 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Being a neuroscience major, I'm a sucker for anything to do with the brain, even pop science books.

This is the second time I'm reading Proust was a Neuroscientist, the first time being when I was in college. Yet again, Jonah Lehrer had me hooked.

Beautiful poetic prose coupled with what is clearly a ton of literature research on his end, Proust was a Neuroscientist is the perfect merger of art and science.

What I loved is that Jonah Lehrer so clearly believes in the marriage of art and science,
Aug 31, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, read_2018
This one started well, but damn if it didn't get tedious in the end. ...more
Apr 26, 2012 rated it liked it
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
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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.” 29 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” 14 likes
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