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Proust Was a Neuroscientist

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Details the contributions of an unlikely group of artists--including artist Paul Câezanne, chef Auguste Escoffier, writer Gertrude Stein, and novelist Marcel Proust--to an understanding of the inner workings of the human brain.

242 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2007

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Jonah Lehrer

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 726 reviews
Profile Image for Maria.
35 reviews215 followers
February 14, 2014
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 worked in the laboratory with Dr. Kandel and Dr. Si during this pivotal time, reason enough for me to submerge into this book without hesitation and I can pleasantly say that it surpassed my expectations.

Proust was a Neuroscientist is a book about artists, writers, musicians and painters, that anticipated many discoveries of our brain functioning through their work. This juxtaposition of art and science has now been used by many neuroscientists to understand more about our brain. But how is possible that artists such as Marcel Proust, Goerge Elliot, Paul Cézanne or Virginia Woolf could predict how our mind works? Can art give us a better closeness to our consciousness than the reductionist approach of neuroscience?

On each chapter, the author introduces the reader with a short biography about the artist's life and their work to grasp a better understanding of the their insight and influence. Then, the author uses their contributions to explain a specific function of the brain and how these artists were right in their own way. I think Jonah Lehrer successfully accomplished to demonstrate through his prose, an ability to understand each of the artist's work and put in simple words its application in different areas of Neuroscience.

All of the chapters are enjoyable and interesting. In George Elliot, I was surprised to know about Charles Darwin's influence on her writting after reading "On the origing of Species" and how she defied the social physics of her day, more specific positivism through "Middlemarch". After a good insight about her work Leher brings the association of Middlemarch's characters and neuroplasticity. As George Elliot says: "It's never too late to be what you might have been".

As with George Elliot and Neuroplasticity, with Marcel Proust the reader will de introduced into the complex and fascinating topic of Memory; which I honestly expected an extension of Dr. Si and Kandel's research work on memory as being part of the laboratory staff working on this project. Nevertheless, the information it is accurate and perfectly ending with the CBEP proteins in memory, a protein that (according to Kandel Journal of Neuroscience 2009) functions like a Prion. The chapter on Gertrude Stein is also fascinating, her social life surrounded by people such as Picasso, Hemingway or Matisse and other intelligentsia learning from each other is almost like a dream which reminds me of early Vienna 1900's when artists and scientists met to exchange ideas. Gertrude Stein, was a medical student but loved the art of writing, as she enjoyed playing with words she approached linguistics and preceded Noam Chomsky, who sayd that Stein was right.... "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose". Virginia Wool, an admirer of Albert Einstein, approaches consciousness through her characters but, albeit scientific explanations of our mind, she never stopped believing in the importance of what art can say about us, au contraire of evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker. Also, through the chef Auguste Escoffier, the sensation of taste and the umami receptors is also a delight!

As I previously mentioned, Eric Kandel also approaches the function of the mind through expressionism art In Vienna and its impact on Psychology and Neuroscience. Through artists such as Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele, Schnitzler and Freud, Kandel explains how our perception of artwork can lead us to understand the way we think and feel. If you liked "Proust was a Neuroscientist", you do not want to miss "The Age of Insight" by a genius in the field of Neuroscience. I'm unaware of Kandels influence on Lehrer towards this book, but as his mentor and similitudes of both books I suppose there obviously is one. This one being a lighter version. Both are highly recommendable to anyone interested in science and art history and in understanding a little more about how our mind works!

I enjoy this kind of books for two reasons. First, because Im fascinated in understanding more about how our brain functions, how we think, how we feel and how each one of us apart from being formed basically by the same chemical formula, we are completely different in our own way. Genetics, epigenetics, environment, neurochemistry... all of these define who we are but it is through art that we get to understand how each one of us think and behave the way we do, individually. Art + science, a hedonistic and interesting combination. Secondly, it gives me a different and wider perspective of an artist's work and enhances me to put attention in details that I might have been missing. Now, I know what to expect from Proust or Gertrude Stein, and what to look for when I re-read Virginia Woolf or enjoy the musical dissonance my brain goes through each time I play Stravinsky's "The Rite".
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,560 reviews8,692 followers
August 20, 2019
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 forced. Like he REALLY wanted Virginia Woolf to be able to explain the self so bad, but it was enjoyable as far as delivering an argument (with few citations).

It wasn't a perfect little book, but it was fun. HOWEVER --

I DO, unfortunately, have to re-evaluate an author by his later looseness with Bob Dylan*. See:


* thanks Maukan
Profile Image for Jafar.
728 reviews234 followers
July 23, 2009
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 foretelling science. These are the artists that he discusses and their particular insight into human mind.

1. Walt Whitman’s poetry implies that our emotions and sensations are not solely produced by the brain, but involve our entire body. There’s a body-brain loop that goes both ways between sensations and emotions.

2. George Elliot rejected the mechanical and deterministic worldview of her time and believed in something that is close to what is now called neuroplasticity.

3. The French chef Auguste Escoffier (he’s the guy who invented menu) was ahead of the narrow understanding that the biologists of his time had of the sense of taste.

4. Marcel Proust knew that recollection is inseparable from memory. The act of remembering can alter the memory.

5. Paul Cezanne’s painting tried to show that vision is not like a picture getting sent accurately to the brain through camera-like eyes. Seeing involves a great amount of post-processing by the brain of the signals that eyes send.

6. Igor Stravinsky understood how the brain expects patterns and how denying these pattern causes conflict and pain. He also knew that the mind was plastic and over time dissonance becomes consonance.

7. Gertrude Stein’s deliberately “nonsensical” writing was an attempt to show that the structure of the language was unavoidable. This was 50 years before Chomsky and at a time when behaviorism claimed to explain language as well.

8. Virginia Wolf’s characters demonstrate the idea of an emerging self. We continually emerge and construct our self from the scraps of our sensations. Self is an illusion that we invent by turning our sensory inputs into consciousness.

Most chapters are an interesting and informative mix of art history and science. As for the Lehrer’s main thesis – artists being ahead of science of their time – in some chapter you can see a case, but in others Lehrer just seems to be forcing it. I have an issue with Lehrer's overall methodology to begin with. If you pick any artist (doesn’t have to be Proust – any half-decent one will do as well) and study their works and look hard enough, you’ll find something that they were right about and arguably ahead of their time. So what? What does it really prove?
Profile Image for Tim.
51 reviews4 followers
June 3, 2008
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 depth of this book, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the workings of the human brain, memory and perception, especially as they apply to the arts. I found it super fascinating, and a very rewarding read. Lehrer writes the concepts with enough detail to be interesting, but in language plain enough that you won't have to spend time looking up extra information or texts unless you want to.

I did feel that Lehrer romanticizes the artists in the book slightly, (possibly because he's less an artist than a scientist?) the artists surely receive less criticism for their ideas (which in the book are usually validated decades later by science, oops, spoiler) than the equivalent scientists which in some cases are painted as misguided logicals swayed by the slightest change in fashionable thought. I'm not saying I disagree completely, just that there isn't as much criticism of the prevalent arts assumptions as there could be (there is some, particularly around Cezanne and the attitudes of the Impressionists) and it may be slightly misleading.

I do very much agree with Lehrer's main idea in the book: Science is a kind of foreign language, a type of overlay built on to the human experience—molded by humans but external, separated from humans by it's precision: mathematics, theorems, equations. It speaks of what we experience but not in the way we experience it. Art, on the other hand, far more fluid and subjective, speaks in the terms of humans. It allows us to use our own internal language to express and understand the world, in context, in focus, and in the most meaningful way possible. Our way.

For me, an entire book about that— the single most important thing in my life, was really excellent.

2 reviews2 followers
November 25, 2009
This book appeared unsolicited in my mailbox from a bookworm friend and instantly, I could tell, I would consume it in one sitting: a slim paperback with a commercial-pop cover design, Oliver Sacks endorsement, and incongruous title-cum-slogan. Ah, yes, every nerd’s most guilty pleasure – an instantaneous sugar high of easy information. Intrigue me with the revelation of some vague underlying life pattern! Enlighten me with the minimum amount of detail! Break down this world into consumable nuggets and spoon-feed it to me bit by bit!

But then, like with any sugary treat, the pleasure ends with the final bite. Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist ambles through the highlights of turn-of-the-century artistic modernism in celebration of the artists (Walt Whitman, Cezanne, etc.) who hit upon a basic series of now-proven neuro-truths (the body is governed by electric pulses, our brain translates sight into what we see, etc.), and what a lovely idea – this English degree is worth something after all! Art and literature are worthy teachers of human behavior, as sharp as any scientist. I hummed happily through, put the book down, and couldn’t name all eight featured artists for all the beer in Belgium.

PWAN is a brief and friendly jaunt, direct and subtly repetitive, with all the trademark short sentences and clipped humor of a well-studied Gladwellian. Lehrer may have taken a few English classes in college between lab periods, but his literary influence is much more Contemporary Middlebrow than Modernist. The Library of Congress lists PWAN under “neuroscience and the arts” when truly it belongs under the category we can surely by now recognize as “instant non-fiction best-seller – life’s complexity simply explained.”PWAN belongs on the American coffeetable besides The Tipping Point, The Black Swan, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Long Tail, The World is Flat, Outliers, Better, Blink, Sway, Nudge and, of course, Freakonomics, that smug schoolboy, the sly pied piper that started it all.

I don’t really mean to be flip or dismissive. Like I said, this stuff is genuine candy to a bookgeek – so light and tasty! But so not filling. It must be said once and for all that the non-fiction best-seller list has turned into a literary manifestation of every yuppie’s most loved/hated cocktail game: the Smartest Guy in the Room. I can’t wait to sit around some IKEA’d studio with a bacon-wrapped date and a glass of screw-top red and hear someone mention off-hand that they simply cannot stand Gertrude Stein, but then again wasn’t she prescient? “Anticipated Chomsky, I believe.” Freakonomics, what hath you wrought?

Lehrer might resent the Freakonomics classification. He wants to be taken seriously – academically seriously. His coda addresses the tired Two Cultures debate made widespread by scientist and novelist CP Snow’s 1959 assertion that the academy falsely separates science and art into distinct and distant categories. Lehrer notes the increasing salability of “the third culture,” a series of science writers like Richard Dawkins and Brian Greene who make bank translating black holes and genes into accessible prose. But Lehrer wants to be distinct from them as well. These writers are a bridge between the scientific community and the ignorant public, not between the two cultures. These writers want to dominate the humanities’ view of the world, not welcome it.

Lehrer advocates a fourth culture, one that recognizes the limits of science because “we now know enough to know that we will never know everything. This is why we need art: it teaches us how to live with mystery. […:] Sometimes there is no answer.” Lehrer wants this book to show “how art and science might be reintegrated into an expansive critical sphere.” Then why does its back cover crow that the book he produced is “a riveting tale of art trumping science again and again”?
The thing is, Lehrer doesn’t integrate art and science. He pits them against each other. He wants “to tell a different story,” not investigate the true subject matter at hand – neurology. Lehrer has taken a wide gamut of fascinating material and worthwhile connections and shoehorned them into a simplified narrative as if he’s revealing a new story of science: Look, these artists anticipated science! They hit upon concepts that big bad serious science is only re-discovering now!

Lehrer is trying to prove the validity of art by virtue of its prescience, and it’s all marketing spin job. In truth, of course, art and science have been grappling with the nature of being for literally ages. There is no reason to boost up French chef Auguste Escoffier as the inventor of umami when in reality he was simply another contributor to our general understanding of taste, so why not simply fold in Escoffier and to a chapter about taste? This is where a smart, non-mainstream editor steps in. The needless narrative frame exacerbates PWAN’s cutesy Gladwellian tone, and a mound of promising material is boxed into something false and mass-marketable.

It’s also a false opposition. Art v. science is meaninglessly broad. There’s literature, and there’s physics, and there’s politics, and there’s chemistry, and there’s cinema, and there’s sociology and all the other various soft and hard and imaginary departments in between. These distinctions are arbitrary and fluid – thus the ever-popular interdisciplinary studies – Lehrer himself ought to realize this. His interest in “bridging the culture gap” stems from his own multi-disciplinary education. The Times’ DT Max fills out Lehrer’s distinguished background: Rhodes scholar, neuroscience lab fellow, and Le Cirque line chef, not to mention magazine editor and New Yorker contributor and all by 25. (Max aptly sums up Lehrer as “one of those young people who turn up in articles on how life is now so competitive that children no longer have time for jump-rope or adolescents for baby-sitting,” and I confess, my own knee-jerk eye-rolls are 100% petty.) What hobby more full embodies the twin loves of science and art than gourmet cooking?

Really, I don’t think Lehrer means to create a “fourth culture,” or even prove to an indifferent public that Stein anticipated Chomsky. Lehrer’s main case here is for how clever he is. He is so clever, in fact, that he’s changed the rules of our unceasing parlor game. The Smartest Guy in the Room is no longer the sly explicator of behavioral anomalies a la Leavitt or Gladwell or Sunstein. He’s the guy who’s fluent in science and art. He’s the scientist who escapes the monotony of the lab with long sessions of Proust (as if that’s any less monotonous).

The book, meanwhile, deserves a little more summary. My highlights:

- Walt Whitman,”The Substance of Feeling” – Whitman emphasized a physical mind-body connection now being elaborated by Antonio Damasio. Rather basic. Fun fact: who knew that Whitman was a volunteer nurse in the civil war? (or, rather, “wound-dresser,” as Lehrer so masculinely puts it)

- George Eliot, “The Biology of Freedom” – Eliot “believed that the mind’s ability to alter itself was the source of our freedom”; neurogenesis and neural plasticity suggest that biology thrives on disorder. Rather tenuous. Fun fact: Eliot was a famously ugly woman – “magnificently ugly,” according to Henry James. “Deliciously hideous.”

- August Escoffier, “The Essence of Taste” – Escoffier soaked everything in veal stock because he loved him the savory even though it wasn’t recognized as one of the four flavors. Meanwhile, in 1907, Kikunae Ikeda distilled MSG from seaweed and dubbed it umami. Awesome intro to umami; not really so much to do with Escoffier.

- Marcel Proust, “The Method of Memory” – Our brain create our memories with every recollection. Yep. Hate to say duh.

- Paul Cezanne, “The Process of Sight” – Our brain creates our sight by interpreting our visual input. Sounds good.

- Igor Stravinksy, “The Source of Music” – Holy cow am I happy that I’ve never heard the Rite of Spring. This douche sounds like the kind of artiste that needs a good punch in the face. The sound of music “before the arising of beauty”? Count me out; check, please.

- Gertrude Stein, “The Structure of Language” – I’ve never understood the allure of Stein’s gibberish and Lehrer comes as close to explaining it to me as any unlucky English prof. Stein wanted to separate language from the yoke of “having to say something,” but found that she couldn’t. Chomsky looked at how words are inescapably attached to meanings and came upon the concept of innate grammar. Compelling, but oh so very boring and even more useless. Fun fact: Who knew that Gertrude Stein got her start in the psych lab of William frickin James?

- Virginia Woolf, “The Emergent Self” – I wrote my own pompous thesis about Woolf and Dalloway in college and Lehrer expands commendably on one of my favorite moments, when Clarissa looks in the mirror and sees that “some effort, some call on her to be her, drew the parts together.” Lovely, and very descriptive of the self, of the many parts and pieces that pull in so many different directions. And some or other neuroscientist then backs her up.

So, congratulations, Lehrer, add “published best-seller” to your meaty young resume. But a final note for future publications. They say to never judge a book by its cover. I tend to go ahead and judge anyway, because whatever, but in any case the title is always fair game for judgment. And this title, it must be said, is tellingly insipid. Proust wasn’t a neuroscientist. Proust was fanatically neurotic. Proust was a megalomaniacal whining momma’s boy. This would have been a far more fascinating book if Lehrer would not have skimped over such context but instead gone in without a point to prove. Forget the scientific method and go in like a good historian: draw the conclusion from the facts, rather than rearrange them for the sake of the hypothesis.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Catherine.
354 reviews
July 13, 2009
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 does not match. Worse, he locates those revelations entirely in the Western world - the idea that Walt Whitman understood that the brain and body are mutually dependent in creating our experience of the world and - he intimates - understood it first would likely come as quite a shock to, say, the Buddhists and Hindus of the East who have been exploring the mind-body connection in practice, song, chant, and art for centuries. Similarly, Escouffier made fantastic stock - I am quite convinced of this fact. That Escouffier did so because he understood something about how the brain works rather than because he just thought things tasted better with bouquet garni, however? I'm unconvinced.

There's also some shady science in this text, although I'm not sure if it's because Lehrer is getting the science completely wrong or simply because his writing is imprecise. When talking of Civil War soldiers experiencing phantom limb pain, for example, Lehrer argues that the persistence of pain in no-longer-existent body parts showed that "Since soul is body and body is soul, to lose a part of one's body is to lose a part of one's soul. . . . The mind cannot be extricated from its matter, for mind and matter, these two seemingly opposite substances, are impossibly intertwined." (14-15) I don't question the sentiment, but I do question its applicability to phantom limb pain, which neuroscience has proven to be wholly and irrevocably a matter of the brain acting alone - of over-active cells, of physical memory, all of which can be erased if the brain is tricked into thinking it has a limb again (mirror therapy is used to treat the phantom limb pain of amputees returning from Afghanistan and Iraq). Similarly, he writes that early 19th century scientist LaPlace "knew that two astronomers plotting the orbit of the same planet at the same time would differ reliably in their data. The fault was not in the stars, but in ourselves." Yet we know, thanks to quantum physics, that two astronomers plotting the orbit of the same planet can differ reliably in their data because time does not move in all places and at all times at the same pace. Is Lehrer claiming only that LaPlace put things down to human error, or that we still consider ourselves to be the problem, and not the stars (and, clearly, not the space-time continuum, which is the real issue).

I am no scientist - all of this knowledge is gleaned from a somewhat obsessive love of the science articles in The New Yorker - but this (and Lehrer's claim that a bird is a mammal) made me question his other scientific claims.

I was also bored. But that almost seems by the by.
Profile Image for Jenna Los.
22 reviews2 followers
February 5, 2008
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 skip the rest.
Profile Image for Deniz Urs.
49 reviews39 followers
January 19, 2021
Bu kitap hakkında ne düşünmem, ne hissetmem gerektiğine bir türlü karar veremiyorum. Uzun zamandır ilgimi celbeden; bilim ve sanat ya da beşeri bilimlerin ortaklaşması, birbirinden beslenmesi gerektiği düşüncesine bir kapı olur bir ışık yakar diye okumak istemiştim.

Özellikle de Kayıp Zamanın İzinde eserini okuduktan sonra iyi edebiyatın ve iyi edebiyatçının önünde şapka çıkararak ne kadar Freud okusam bilinçdışı’ nın nasıl işliyor olabileceğine dair o uzun soluklu roman kadar fikri edinemeyeceğimi düşünmüştüm. Ama kabaca sanat ve bilimin bu kör dövüşünü yumuşatmaya dair okuduğum ne varsa hepsi yine birbirini aynı argümanlarla dışlıyor ya da küçümsüyor.
Okurken tam ihya oldum derken yine bilim belli noktada indirgemeci, sanat da “ deli işi” oluveriyor.
Bu kitap daha çok bilime karşı bilenmişlikle doluydu. Sonuna kadar katıldığım ve önünde eğildiğim sanatın; bilimin hangi nöronlar kıpraştı da bu yaratım oldu ya da benlik duygusu oluştu cevabını veremediği o yaratım için ya bak işte çözemeyeceğin şeyler var bilim diye parmak sallaması ne kadar irrite ediciyse; bilimin; sanatı, edebiyatı, sezgisel olanı kendi 2*2=4 ‘üne uymuyor diye tükaka ilan etmesi de bir o kadar irrite edici. Her ikisinin de yaratıcısı insansa ki öyle bir durup düşünmek lazım neden denemiyor? Deniyor da yine sonuç niye aynı yere çıkıyor. En nihayetinde insanız işte...
Gerek sanat cenahında gerçek bilim çevrelerinde bu birbirini aşağılama ve dışlama ne yazık ki kendi çevremde de var ve çok üzücü. Evet sanat adı altında bazı gerçekleri bulanıklaştırmak doğru değil ya da bilim adı altında o yaratımı ve yaratıcılığın açacağı kapıları kapamak.. Sadece sağduyu ve insan olmanın getirdiği kompleks ve egoların farkında olarak bakmak bile bu iki cenahın biraz daha yakınlaşmasını sağlayabilir
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,538 followers
September 14, 2011
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 the smell and appearance of foods on people's appetites. His ideas preceded their acceptance by scientists by many years. The chapter on Igor Stravinsky was also fascinating. He realized that the sense of dissonance in music is temporary. Over time, exposure to dissonance makes the dissonant sound become acceptable, and even beautiful. Therefore, he composed The Rite of Spring to be utterly shocking to the tastes of the contemporary public. He wanted to ensure that the shock value would last for some time, before his music had a chance to become "beautiful".
24 reviews1 follower
February 10, 2008
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 repeats his distaste for scientific reductionism. By the final chapter, there was no need to describe his beliefs about reductionism that had become clear from the preceding 8 chapters.
Profile Image for Oroboros72.
10 reviews4 followers
May 22, 2011
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 people observed that smells could evoke strong and overwhelming memories. It's not that art is ahead of neuroscience, it's that humans with brains do art and the way the brain works determines how art comes out.
The thesis seems like this to me "cave men made pictures using red and green, and color science later showed that green and red are complimentary colors, so cave men were way ahead of science." It's just a pretty meaningless thing to say.

Despite my disagreement with the thesis, I actually really enjoyed reading the book. As a story about certain artists and how their work fit in with the science of their day and how it can be understood in terms of current science, it is really entertaining (I would also recommend "The Disappearing Spoon" for some fun stories about the elements of the periodic table). But the weight and importance put on the fact that these 'discoveries' were made by art before they were made by science is tangential to what is actually interesting in this book. It seems like Lehrer is just trying to play to people who want to feel smarter than scientists, and sell more books by making it sound like he has discovered something exciting (that art is so much smarter than science).
Profile Image for K.M. Weiland.
Author 31 books2,298 followers
August 16, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Jennifer de Guzman.
Author 14 books58 followers
February 7, 2009
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 humanities. His literary interpretations of works like Middlemarch, In Search of Lost Time, and To the Lighthouse do not stray from traditional readings and offer anything new as far as literary criticism goes, but that's not really in the scope of this book.

The weakest chapter is that on George Eliot, in which he seeks to show that Eliot's rejection of the determinist philosophy of her time is borne out not only in her writing but in the science of DNA. However, in seeking to show that we have biological freedom, Lehrer overlooks that we, like the characters in Eliot's novels, have free will but are born into unalterable circumstance and are affected by forces outside our control -- such as the choices of others and nature (as the characters of Eliot's The Mill on the Floss could tell us).

The balance of the book is very strong, however, and I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Whitman, Stravinsky and Woolf. The inseparability of body and mind, the neuroscience of music, and the construction of consciousness are all elegantly explored and explained.

The final chapter is a "coda" in which Lehrer expresses a wish for a "fourth culture" that will "freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience." He is very persuasive, and a desire to better understand how science can enlighten art and art can enlighten science is what led me to his book in the first place. I do find, though, that Lehrer can be too positive about the limits of science; he writes, "It is naive to think that science can solve everything by itself, or that everything can be solved." Too often I've seen in centuries-old writing the opinion that we would never discover something that today we have, such as what stars are made of and how they burn. I agree that there are limits to our knowledge now, and that art helps us delve through those limitations, but I do not think it follows that we will not someday understand and know what we don't today. I think it is better to say that art helps us to discover what we do not yet understand and know, and once those problems are solved, it will discover more. Art is the guide for our increasing knowledge, leading us to new paths of inquiry.

I do not agree with Lehrer on everything, but I value this book for that very reason. Where I disagree with him leads me to think things out for myself, and the fascinating work he does linking art and science inspires me to read more, to learn more.
Profile Image for sologdin.
1,706 reviews624 followers
January 2, 2021
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 principle. The Eliot essay fails, on the other hand, to bear out a defense of free will, though it certainly seems to develop other scientific ideas successfully. Escoffier, Whitman, Woolf, Stein, Stravinsky, Cezanne. I think I liked the Stravinsky piece best, though the Escoffier was the most educational in its references.

Quick and easy.
Profile Image for Richard.
1,140 reviews1,028 followers
July 10, 2021
Three stars seems a bit paltry, because I like Lehrer as an author, but it does, after all, mean “I liked it.”

I like the idea of what this book could have been more than the actual execution. In our bookclub meeting, someone suggested a better title might have used a question mark: Proust Was a Neuroscientist?, but I think a better idea would have been to drop the “w”: Proust as a Neuroscientist. Lehrer traces the history, personal development and impact of each artist’s contribution and points out how those advances presaged much later changes in our understanding of cognition.

The idea that artistic revolution might intuit things that scientists hadn’t yet noticed is wonderful; showing such foreshadowing is the pleasant core of this book. What I didn’t like was when Lehrer presented the artists as actually understanding cognition or neuroscience. So he claims that Proust spent so much time and effort examining his flawed memories that he “understood how the brain worked”, and his “hypothesis”, “model” and “theory of memory” have since been ratified by contemporary science.

Our current culture is atrociously science-averse. Lehrer’s assertion that these artists really are cryptoscientists diminishes science in service of further glorifying select artists. Although radical insights and creative explosions are the visible highlights of scientific endeavors, they are precisely what is shared by every creative field, and focusing on them as the sine qua non of science is precisely what is misleading. Science is the drudgery of data gathering, experimental replication and hypothesis testing. Most of it is, necessarily, “little science” in Kuhn’s paradigmatic scenario: not glorious at all. Lehrer’s eight revolutionary artists were not engaged in science, but radical creativity. Look to inventors like Nikola Tesla or Alexander Graham Bell, perhaps, as their equivalents.

In Lehrer’s final chapter, he repeats C.P. Snow’s lament at the divide between art and science. Frankly, I’m a bit of a heretic on that point; I think the divide is as natural as that between, say, shoe-making and ice cream production. Science and art are both important to our society, but that does not mean they have a natural touching point. When Lehrer attempts to build a bridge between these two domains, he diminishes some important points and emphasizes lesser points, inevitably to the detriment of one field or the other — which is precisely what he complains in his afterword what science popularizers often do.

This is a pleasant book to read, especially if you re-imagine it as a book showing artists intuiting and foreshadowing later research into neuroscience or cognition. That might not be quite as grand as Lehrer had intended, however.

    •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

(Selected as the book-of-the-month for the reading group of the Down to a Science Science Café for November 2010.)
Profile Image for Jan Priddy.
722 reviews137 followers
May 10, 2018
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 dialogue between the arts and sciences. “Unfortunately, many of the luminaries of our current third culture are extremely antagonistic toward everything that isn’t scientific,” he writes (192). And that is a pity, because human beings are more than charts and numbers; we are creative and denying this, blinds us to our imaginative capacities. Do I need to add that I loved this book?
Profile Image for Ross Bennett.
11 reviews
January 21, 2015
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.

Profile Image for Aybala Dönmez.
28 reviews5 followers
April 13, 2020
Kitaptan alıntılar:

1- Walt Whitman-Hissetmenin Tözü

William'ın romancı kardeşi Henry James'in bir keresinde dediği gibi, "Eksik olan her şeyde bir mevcudiyet vardır." Bu mevcudiyet bizim mevcudiyetimizdir.

Soruları cevaplardan, inancın belirsizliğini aklın kanaat getirmişliğinden daha çok seviyordu.

...,zira her duygu bedensel bir değişikliğin algılamasıyla başlar.

Bedenin yarattığı bilinçsiz hisler bilinçli kararlardan önce gelir. Zihni yöneten eldir.


2- George Eliot- Özgürlüğün Biyolojisi

"Hayat ve Varlık erişilmezliğini her zaman korur." Özgürlük hiçbir şey değilse bile cehaletimizin kaçınılmaz sonucudur.

...,zira biz sabit cevabı olmayan bir denklemiz. Kendi kendimizi çözeriz.

Eliot özgürlüğümüzün kaynağında zihnin kendisini değiştirme yeteneğinin yattığına inanıyordu.

Bizi insan yapan ve dahası başka biri gibi değil olduğumuz gibi bir insan yapan sadece çiftlerimize gömdüğümüz genlerimiz değiliz, çevremizle diyolog halindeki hücrelerimizin kendimizi okuma şeklimizi değiştirerek DNA'mızı nasıl geri beslediğimizdir. Hayat bir diyalektiktir.

Gürültü yalnızca oradaydı, hayatı yaşanabilir kılan şeyin ayrılmaz parçasıydı.

Bugün ihtiyaç duyduğumuz şey yeni ve belirsizliğimizi yansıtan bir hayat görüşürüz. Biz ne tamamen özgür ne de tamamen belirlenmiş canlılarız. Dünya kısıtlamalarla doludur, ama kendi yolumuzu bulabiliriz.


3- Auguste Escoffier- Lezzetin Özü

Öznelliğimiz olmadan asla duyumlarımızı deşifre edemeyiz ve duyumlarımız olmadan hiçbir şeye öznel yaklaşamayız. Şarabı tadabilmek için önce yargıda bulunmak gerekir.


4- Marcel Proust- Belleğin yönetimi

...,"zira yaşamımız bedevidir ama belleğimiz yerleşiktir."

Biz gerçek olduğunu hissetsek de, aslında anılar incelikli uydurulmuş yalanlardan başka bir şey değildir.

...bilimciler yalnızca bizim hatırlama edimini değiştirmediğimizi, aynı zamanda hatırlama ediminin de bizi değiştirdiğini kanıtladılar.

Her anı ancak en son hatırladığı kadar gerçektir. Bir şeyi ne kadar hatırlarsanız anı o kadar kusurlu hale gelir.

Kekin tadını hatırladığımız an gerçekte tadının nasıl olduğunu unuttuğumuz andır.

Proust'un ifade ettiği şekliyle, "Yegane cennet kayıp cennettir."

Anının değişmesini engellersiniz, varlığı sona erer...Proust'un kabahatli sırrı şudur: Bir şeyi hatırlamak için önce yanlış hatırlamak gerekir.

Geçmiş aynı anda hem ebedidir, hem de geçici.


5- Paul Cézanne- Görme Olayı

Şöyle yazıyordu Kant: "Tahayyül algının ayrılmaz bir parçasıdır.


6- İgor Stravinski - Müziğin Kaynağı

Müziğin devindirici gücünün ahenk değil, çatışma olduğunu anlamıştı. Hissetmemizi sağlayan sanat canımızı yakan sanattır ve hiçbir şey acımasız bir senfoni kadar canımızı yakamaz.

..., müziği işitmemizi sağlayan şey yetişme tarzımızdır.

Insan yeniliğin belirsizliğinden nefret edecek şekilde yaratılmıştır.

Sanat zor olduğunu hissettiriyorsa, bunun tek nedeni nöronlarımızın onu anlamak için esniyor olmalarıdır. Acının kaynağında büyüme vardır. Nietzsche'nin sadistçe dile getirdiği üzere, "Herhangi bir şeyin bellekte kalmak için acı vermesi şarttır; yalnızca sürekli acı veren şeyler bellekte kalir."


7- Gertrude Stein- Dilin Yapısı

"Kelimeler sonsuz zihnin sonlu organlarıdır".-Emerson

...,zira der Henry, gerçekliğin "bir tane değil milyonlarca penceresi vardır...Bunların her birinde bir çift göz vardır."

"Dil bizim hakikat algımızın aleyhine çalışır."


8- Virginia Woolf - Ortaya Çıkan Benlik

"Her şeyi açıklayan psikoloji hiçbir şeyi açıklayamaz." -Marianne Moore

Benlik kimliğimizin kırılgan kaynağıdır, bilincimizin yaratıcısıdır. Benlik olmasaydı biz de olmazdık. "Insanın zihninde bütün olmalıdır." diyordu," parçalar katlanılabilir değildir."

"Bu onun kendi benliğiydi." diye düşünür. "Ok gibi kaçınılmasız. Bu onun (kendi) benliğiydi, ufacık bir çabayla, bir kendine gelme çağrısıyla parçacıkları bir araya getirdiğinde nasıl farklı, nasıl benzersiz, nasıl serikanlıydı dünyayı bir merkezde, bir elmasta, odasında oturarak bir buluşma anı oluşturan bir kadında toplarken..."

Benlik bilinç karmaşasından," kırık parçalardan oluşan bir tür bütün"den ortaya çıkar.

Rimbaud "Ben bir başkasıdır" diye yazmıştı.

Günlüğüne biz "kıymıklar ve mozaikleriz; eskiden düşünüldüğü günü lekesiz, yekpare, tutarlı bütünler değiliz" diye yazıyordu.

...,kalıcı görünen benlik aslında birbirinden kopuk anlardan oluşan sonsuz bir geçit törenidir.

Bizim gerçeklik dediğimiz sadece son taslaktır.

...,her Ben aslında çoğuldur.

Woolf benliğimizin her iki tarafını da görmemizi istiyordu:" Bu hem nefes değse kırışıverecek bir şey hem de atlar koşulsa yerinden kıpırdatılamayacak bir şey olacaktı."



"Bilim ilerledikçe gizem hissi de artar."

Whitman'ın bir keresinde dediği gibi, dünya büyüktür, çokluklar içerir.

Profile Image for Elaine.
312 reviews58 followers
April 7, 2012
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 hospitals during the Civil War, put forth, in his poetry, the relationship between the body, the whole body, and emotion. Likewise, Proust was prescient about the nature of memory. George Eliot, an avid reader of science, explored human nature and the malleability of the mind. Escofier, French chef extraordinaire, not only discovered the 5th taste but also much about the physical origins of appetite, besides hunger, of course.

Cezanne, to me, was the most amazing. He noticed that the mind sees what it is trained to see. In other words, reality is in our brains. It's not out there. If you read just one piece of nonfiction this year, make it this chapter. By all means, read the others, too, but this, to me, is essential.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Lehrer's chapter on Gertrude Stein who, to me, was an arrogant talentless bore. She was famous because she knew famous people and bought a lot of paintings. Since she wasn't averse to gossip, people accepted her invitations. That's my take on her fame, anyway.

What galled me about Lehrer's assertion that Stein "discovered" deep structure in language 50 years before Chomsky was that neither Stein nor Chomsky did so. Chomsky learned structural linguistics, which focused on syntax, and stressed the self-evident fact that we change the deep structure of assertion, for instance, to create questions. Thus, "He did go" becomes "Did he go?" More interestingly, "Jack went" becomes "Did Jack go?" Since anthropological linguists were examining such phenomena by the opening of the 20th century because they were busy writing grammars .of tribal peoples. What Chomsky did that was noteworthy was to show that Behaviorism is grossly wrong. He also used mathematical notations to describe syntax.

Lehrer claims that Stein's writings were an attempt to show how syntax governs what we say. Scholars in the Middle Ages knew that. They studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. They had to compare the syntax of these languages to English to learn them. Lehrer can claim ignorance on the grounds of not knowing the history of Linguistics, but to quote Stein's unlovely, unclever, and unmeaning prose as an example of showing deep structure is silly. He quotes her sentence, "The care with which incredible justness and likeness all this makes a magnificent asparagus."

This is not pushing syntax, uncovering its role in language. Before Stein, Lewis Carroll did that superbly in Jabberwocky. Since he apparently wanted a writer to illustrate how we are governed by syntax, Lehrer could have used e.e. cummings, "Anyone lived in a pretty how town with up so many floating bells down...he danced his didn't..."

Except for the Stein chapter, this is a great and unusual read
Profile Image for Daniel M..
Author 1 book29 followers
October 3, 2011
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 number of writers who are blatantly wrong about the nature of mind. Still, I enjoy the combination as providing some illumination. Great writers DO provide new language that gives us a way to think about and consider phenomena, especially the slippery, indescribable sensations that flit through our consciousness. Considering the process of visual perception through Cezanne’s point-of-view brings a historical perspective to the front. In Cezanne’s day, perception was thought of a “perfect reflections of the outside world. The eye was like a camera: it collected pixels of light and passed them passively on to the brain.” His artwork is clearly NOT that, but plays with the difference between what’s actually there and what’s perceived. (p. 97)

I also learned a few things that I really hadn’t known. Example: The idea that the CPEB protein can exist in multiple stable configurations, but can be flipped from one state to another by a neurotransmitter (the basis of long-term memory encoding?) was astounding. (p. 93-94)

Lehrer gets a little fuzzy and over-the-top in the last chapter. Virginia Woolf is a great writer that really does try to be internally introspective, but Lehrer seems to over-value her perspective as telling us that consciousness is fundamentally unknowable. For all his railing about post-modernism as a language trick that devalues rigorous thought, it feels to me as though he does the same thing in end. In discarding reductionism as a methodology for understanding, I think he overdid it and fell into a pool of abstractions that don’t carry his argument forward very well.
But I still think it’s a great book. Just don’t take the last 12 pages too seriously.
Profile Image for Joyce.
44 reviews41 followers
February 5, 2021
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 ... Lehrer's clear and vivid writing - incisive and thoughtful, yet sensitive and modest - is a special pleasure." I agree...
Profile Image for Francisco.
Author 22 books54.9k followers
September 20, 2012
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's discussed.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
614 reviews763 followers
December 13, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Lina Slavova.
61 reviews16 followers
January 14, 2017
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 is useful for describing the functioning of the brain and that art is useful for describing our actual experience of the brain. 

To prove this assertion Lehrer shows the reader how eight artists: a poet, a chef, a composer, a painter and four novelists each described accurately an aspect of the mind that modern neuroscience is now explaining in scientific terms.  

This book is original and well written. I would definitely encourage you to read it. 
Below is a brief summary but obviously, there is a lot more  information in the book and you might be inspired by different aspects or pieces of information.  

Walt Whitman served as wound dresser during the 1862 Civil War. During that time he encountered many soldiers with amputated limps but who were still able to “feel” their missing parts. It is because of this experience that he came to see the interconnection between mind and body. Now modern neuroscience explains that feelings emerge from the interaction of our brain and our body and not form any single place. This is the theory of the Body Loop elaborated by Dr. Antonio Damasio. 

George Eliot was a mid-nineteen century novelist that believed our human nature is malleable and that we can willfully transform ourselves. She believed that the source of our freedom is the ability of the mind to alter itself. Neuroscience now knows that our brain is far from being fixed and is  constantly giving birth to new connections and that the amount of neurogenesis is directly influenced by the environment. 

 Auguste Escoffier, the French chef who invented the veal stock, was the first to take full advantage of the sense of smell and that is why he served his food hot.   Today, neuroscience findings suggest that up to 90% of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. Escoffier also believed in the plasticity of the sense of smell and its ability to be remodeled by new experiences. This fact is also confirmed by neuroscience. When we sense something the sensation is immediately analyzed in terms of previous experiences. Our individual and subjective brain interprets the sensations. 

Marcel Proust realised that our senses of smell and taste are closely linked to our memories. Proust used the taste of a madeleine and the taste of tea to reconstruct his childhood. Scientific research indicates that memories are not stored somewhere in our brain but reconstructed each time, and that with each reconstruction we alter the structure of the memory. How exactly we reconstruct the memories is still a mystery, but it appears that our knowledge influences our recollection. We alter past memories to reflect our current understanding of the recollected circumstances, just as Proust’s writing technique, always altering his past words to reflect his present circumstances.  

Paul Cezanne felt that to see, the eye is not enough. We need out minds, we need to interpret our impressions. The information captured by the retina is sent into two separate pathways in the brain, one slow and one fast. The fast pathway sends a blurry picture to our prefrontal cortex who then decides what we have seen, it edits the information. We see twice and everything we see is an abstraction. Cezanne’s goal was to give the brain just enough lines to decipher the image. He broke all the laws of painting of his time in order to reveal the laws of seeing. The mind imposes itself on the eye. 

Igor Stravinsky believed that our sense of sound is malleable. He believed in the limitless possibility of our minds. Neuroscience confirms that our brain is obsessed with order and constantly seeks patterns. A symphony is simply vibrating air that we have learned how to hear, a melody with predictable patterns. Stravinsky intentionally broke down the known patterns and was first rejected for doing so, but then the audiences proved him right by getting used to the new patterns and appreciating his creations.  

Gertrude Stein was fascinated by the subject of language. For a long period of time she studied automatic writing and came to the conclusion that the structure of language is built in our brains. Most of her time she wrote about absolutely nothing but that nothing somehow remained grammatical.  Many years later Chomsky in the 1950’s articulated the theory of the universal grammar. Our words are symbolic and gain meaning by the use we make of them. What is permanent is the stricture that binds these words. It is an invisible grammar imbedded in our brain. The structure exists independently of the words.   

Virginia Wolf was affected by mental illness and her way of dealing with her condition was to look inside her own mind. What she found was a mind that never stood still. She realised that what makes us whole is the self and that the self is composed of many different fragments that we somehow experience as one. She believed that the self is the story we tell ourselves about our experiences. We emerge from our own fleeting interpretations of the world by paying attention to what we perceive. 

Although the self is still an elusive concept, the study of split-brain patients (patients with severed nervous tissue that connects the left and right hemispheres) has proved that each lobe has a unique self, a distinct being with its own desires, talents and sensations. Our consciousness seams to emerge form the multiple parts of our brain, we are plural but have the sensation of being whole.
Profile Image for Hieu.
18 reviews2 followers
October 31, 2022
This book is a very interesting read. Neuroscience in this book is not any reductionism down to chemical or neuronal levels, but is a more integrative model from the the arts and humanities. Reality is truthfully subjective, yet it will not be one without the sensations that inspire art. Both can generate truth. Science has its own truth and so does art.

One thing the author did so well was bridging the sciences and art. In his writing, science and art are not two separate worlds condemning each other. For him, science and art are not dialogues of the unequals, not even the descriptive revelation of the “truth” using mismatched languages. They are one, strangely somehow. Together, they constitute the human experience of the world.

My favorite quote: “The world is large. It contains multitudes.”
Profile Image for Bill.
218 reviews
January 14, 2018
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 functionings of the brain. Some of the comparisons yield more insight than others, such as the exploration of the discovery of L-glutamate receptors on the tongue with the innovations of pioneering chef Auguste Escoffier or the comparison of the mechanics of vision with the art of Paul Cezanne, but even the weaker chapters, such as the Walt Whitman chapter, have enough interesting observations to keep the reader engaged.

In the final chapter, "Coda", Lerner brings the book together with an appeal to both scientists and students of the humanities to refrain from writing the understandings of one another off. Postmodernists, he says, can write off the discoveries of science as "nothing but another text" while scientist can write off the humanities as "hopelessly false." Lerner reminds us that no one has a monopoly on the truth, and calls for a sort of middle path between the two to help us understand our lives and the world around us.
Profile Image for Victoria Hawco.
537 reviews
April 6, 2022
“If science breaks us apart, art puts us back together.”
“When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art.”

Not ashamed to admit I got emotional at the end.
Profile Image for Feisty Harriet.
1,202 reviews38 followers
March 17, 2017
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 Whitman, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, composer Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, painter Paul Cezanne, and chef Auguste Escoffier.)

More extended review (and a bunch of other neuro-ish book) here: https://www.feistyharriet.com/2017/03...
Profile Image for Amanda.
293 reviews
October 11, 2011
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 I'm feeling terse, Austen if I'm feeling romantic. However, it's not so rare for me to be reading WIRED or DISCOVER magazine. I watch NOVA regularly and some of my favorite blogs are science blogs. I've always considered literature to be the expression of the practice of living. Every single thing that science discovers or philosophers theorize about are exemplified in literature. So, I was extremely pleased to find Lehrer articulating all my thoughts and suppositions in a voice that is remarkably accessible and beautiful.

You pretty much feel like you're talking to a particularly passionate friend, and then he'll say something that sounds uncommonly like this guy's a real writer. Then you remember, oh yeah, he is. That kind of tone is particularly effective at putting me at ease and making me receptive towards new information. Then you've got all the crazy research, the extremely orderly and sensible format, and it's pretty much a home run. I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who thinks that fiction is useless, but also for people who love art and love asking questions. It's a tribute to the brilliance of the human brain. When I read these kinds of books, my belief in the extraordinary miracle of the human race is reaffirmed and celebrated.
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