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Proust Was a Neuroscientist [Paperback]

Jonah Lehrer
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (83 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 1, 2008 0547085907 978-0547085906 Reprint
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 painter, a poet, a chef, a composer, and a handful of novelists — Lehrer shows how each one discovered an essential truth about the mind that science is only now rediscovering. We learn, for example, how Proust first revealed the fallibility of memory; how George Eliot discovered the brain’s malleability; how the French chef Escoffier discovered umami (the fifth taste); how Cézanne worked out the subtleties of vision; and how Gertrude Stein exposed the deep structure of language — a full half-century before the work of Noam Chomsky and other linguists. It’s the ultimate tale of art trumping science.
More broadly, Lehrer shows that there’s a cost to reducing everything to atoms and acronyms and genes. Measurement is not the same as understanding, and art knows this better than science does. An ingenious blend of biography, criticism, and first-rate science writing, Proust Was a Neuroscientist urges science and art to listen more closely to each other, for willing minds can combine the best of both, to brilliant effect.

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Editorial Reviews 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.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (September 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547085907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547085906
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (83 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #46,921 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

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
463 of 538 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars No, he wasn't. January 23, 2008
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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61 of 71 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lehrer's novel was only half right. October 20, 2008
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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42 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A strong neuronal perturbation December 16, 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It is not surprising at all to hear that artistic musings can predate and even validate scientific theories and observations sometimes by several decades. And since it is ultimately the senses and the brain that allow the appreciation of art and music, it is natural that artists and musicians, even if they know nothing of contemporary cognitive neuroscience, would be able to create works that would exploit both the power and limitations of the senses and the brain. This book, elegantly written but far too short for those who are captivated by its contents and are greedy for more, gives some examples of this. Indeed, composers, authors, chefs, and artists such as Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Igor Stravinsky, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Paul Cezanne all showed great insight into brain function the author argues, and it was this insight, although they may not have explicitly acknowledged it, that enabled them to have such an impact. This impact was sometimes delayed as far as social recognition was concerned, but if examined in the light of modern research in cognitive neuroscience, their contributions take on a whole new meaning, and one that goes beyond how they affected the individual reader or listener. The author's contributions in this book can be viewed somewhat loosely in the context of what might be called `neurocriticism', or `neuro-humanities'. The goal of these disciplines (not really recognized "officially" by academia) is to interpret literature, art, science, and other categories in light of what is now understood about the science of the brain. This is a fascinating approach to the understanding of these categories, and one that is gaining momentum as better experimental techniques are discovered for studying brain processes. Read more ›
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Proust
For anyone who has had difficulty justifying the crucial importance of art vs "the real"
Lehar cites examples of artistic innovation as the precursor for scientific... Read more
Published 1 month ago by NJ Snider
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
This is one of my favorite books, it's a great balance between art and science. The author is magical. Highly recommended.
Published 1 month ago by AKBlueberry
4.0 out of 5 stars Art foreshadows neuroscience
Interesting collection of essays on how artists explore and illuminate workings of the mind, as later confirmed by neuroscientific data.
Published 4 months ago by Rose Oatley
3.0 out of 5 stars If taken with a grain of salt . . .
...the intelligent reader might still find this book interesting. Lehrer introduces an intriguing hypothesis in this book, namely that artists of a certain time were ahead of... Read more
Published 8 months ago by granolafreak08
3.0 out of 5 stars Nothing too real...
My favorite review was a five star with the title "Intelectualy creative." Indeed.

Doesn't even have references to the studies he cites. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Josh
4.0 out of 5 stars Easy and very interesting read
Intrigued by the concept, I purchased this book and read it quickly, and it was not what I expected. Read more
Published 12 months ago by A. Fleming
3.0 out of 5 stars Great Premise, Disappointing Execution
Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist starts with the wonderful premise that writers and other artists discovered important facts about the human brain that were only later... Read more
Published 12 months ago by W. A. Carpenter
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelectualy creative
A superb piece of integrative analysis that places the arts on an equal footing with science and gives it back its rightful place in our thinking about the mind and as a source of... Read more
Published 14 months ago by roderick curtin
1.0 out of 5 stars Proust was a Neuroscientist
I returned it because there was a dispute over plagiarism, and I prefered to pass this on. To bad some authors do this
Published 14 months ago by Estela
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous book
Fascinating subject, of course, and well-written book. Explores a wide range of subjects and connects them all to their neuroscientific basis. A book I will read many times.
Published 14 months ago by Frances Salorio
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