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Proust Was a Neuroscientist Paperback – September 1, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0547085906 ISBN-10: 0547085907 Edition: Reprint
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Significant Seven, December 2007: Proust may have been more neurasthenic than neuroscientist, but Jonah Lehrer argues in Proust Was a Neuroscientist that he (and many of his fellow artists) made discoveries about the brain that it took science decades to catch up with (in Proust's case, that memory is a process, not a repository). Lehrer weaves back and forth between art and science in eight graceful portraits of artists (mostly writers, along with a chef, a painter, and a composer) who understood, better at times than atomizing scientists, that truth can begin with "what reality feels like." Sometimes it's the art that's most evocative in his tales, sometimes the science: Lehrer writes about them with equal ease and clarity, and with a youthful confidence that art and science, long divided, may yet be reconciled. --Tom Nissley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

With impressively clear prose, Lehrer explores the oft-overlooked places in literary history where novelists, poets and the occasional cookbook writer predicted scientific breakthroughs with their artistic insights. The 25-year-old Columbia graduate draws from his diverse background in lab work, science writing and fine cuisine to explain how Cézanne anticipated breakthroughs in the understanding of human sight, how Walt Whitman intuited the biological basis of thoughts and, in the title essay, how Proust penetrated the mysteries of memory by immersing himself in childhood recollections. Lehrer's writing peaks in the essay about Auguste Escoffier, the chef who essentially invented modern French cooking. The author's obvious zeal for the subject of food preparation leads him into enjoyable discussions of the creation of MSG and the decidedly unappetizing history of 18th- and 19th-century culinary arts. Occasionally, the science prose risks becoming exceedingly dry (as in the enthusiastic section detailing the work of Lehrer's former employer, neuroscientist Kausik Si), but the hard science is usually tempered by Lehrer's deft way with anecdote and example. Most importantly, this collection comes close to exemplifying Lehrer's stated goal of creating a unified third culture in which science and literature can co-exist as peaceful, complementary equals. 21 b&w illus. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (September 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547085907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547085906
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (92 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #191,849 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonah Lehrer is a Contributing Editor at Wired and the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He graduated from Columbia University and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He's written for The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. He's also a Contributing Editor at Scientific American Mind and National Public Radio's Radio Lab.

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

479 of 556 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
When I first heard of this book, I was intrigued by the title. I just recently finished Proust's In Search of Lost Time and I've spent a good part of my career in Neuroscience. So I laughed when I saw the madeleine, the initiator of Marcel's journey of memory, on the cover. But I'm sorry to report that this is a most irritating book. Mr. Lehrer sets up his premise that these eight great artists somehow presaged later discoveries of neuroscience and then bends over backwards to prove it. Each artist/novelist/cook is subjected to egregious cherry-picking of quotes and concepts to align their work with his shallow understanding of neuro-scientific discoveries (his scientific credentials are that he worked in a neuroscience lab as a technician). He covers a lot of ground but it is at a desperate, grad-student level of scholarship. This is confirmed in his acknowledgement section where he admits to having spent a lot of time in the library - probably reading other authors' analyses of these artists. Too bad he didn't study them himself. The book is at its best when he is simply reviewing the contributions made by these giants. Their works are described enthusiastically though not thoroughly. It's like examining the Sistine Chapel with a flashlight - he misses the big picture. But when he reduces the artist's entire body of work down to fit his argument that they somehow anticipated how the brain functions, things really fall apart. Concerning the ones I know well (Proust, Cezanne, Stravinsky, and Woolf), I was startled by how idiotic his extrapolations are. No, Proust was not a neuroscientist. He was a brilliant writer who described the human condition and human behavior like no other. It's insulting to reduce his literary adventure of memory to a discussion of dendritic prions.Read more ›
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62 of 75 people found the following review helpful By Jared Ivey on October 20, 2008
Format: Paperback
Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer attempts to reveal ideas from artists about the mind that neuroscience is recently discovering as true. Lehrer explains both the artistic and scientific concepts in such a way that anyone could understand. This novel is not a hardcore lesson in neuroscience or art but instead a decent blend of both fields.

The different chapters look at a poet, four novelists, a chef, a painter, and a composer. The chapters each follow similar patterns. Lehrer initially prepares us for each artist with a brief biography at the beginning. He then delves into certain works and exposes the neurological insights of the artists. Once we understand the artist's view on the mind, Lehrer shifts from art to science to show discoveries in neuroscience that pertain to the artist's ideas. Finally, Lehrer attempts to draw similarities between what the artist believed and what neuroscience has discovered.

The book first examines the poet Walt Whitman, who saw the mind and body as inseparable. George Eliot, the novelist who believed human freedom arose from our mind's malleability, comes next. The French chef Auguste Escoffier did wonders for the culinary arts with his ideas on the plasticity of taste, the power of suggestion, and the importance of our sense of smell in tasting food. Marcel Proust uncovered the role of smell and taste in our memories as well as the memory's fallibility. Paul Cezanne used his paintings to show that our perception plays a huge role in what and how we see the world around us. The composer Igor Stravinsky revealed that we can only begin to feel music when "the pattern we imagine starts to break down" (Lehrer 132).
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By cm on April 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I found this book disappointing. It initially appeared to be a consideration of the interaction between the arts and sciences and how the two fields complemented or contributed to one another. Instead it presents a group of artists who apparently had ideas about the mind, the brain, how we sense things, who we are as humans and contrasts these ideas with prevalent scientific ideas at the time. Since the artists' ideas were new and untested scientifically, they were frequently dismissed by some scientists. The conclusion - science was blind to the brilliant new ideas of artists, frequently willfully so.

There are several things that bother me about this book. The author necessarily simplifies the science he discusses, primarily neuroscience, frequently to the point of being inaccurate and several times incorrect. Given that, it made me wonder how often the ideas of the artists were portrayed inaccurately, or incorrectly. I found it difficult to trust in what was written about the arts and artists.

The author tends to make the scientific culture monolithic and unyielding. There are certainly scientists who are rigid and arrogant in their thinking, but many (most) who understand that what is known today will be modified extensively tomorrow. Even though he worked for a time in an outstanding neuroscience lab, the author does not seem to have a good grasp of the scientific method. While he clearly trumpets its limitations, it is not in the context of understanding the method itself.

The adjective and verbs applied to science are frequently negative, signaling who is wrong and who is right before the discussion begins. Terms such as inane, fashionable obsession, ransacked, derision, typically stubborn are applied to science or scientists and not to artists.
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