on 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. Had he read the scene from 'Time Regained' where Marcel waits in the library, he'd know that. It is the best statement of Proust's understanding of the power of memory - and it's not mentioned in this book. The 'analysis' in this book is agenda-driven musings of a 25-year-old blogger. After eight chapters of this intellectual alchemy, his conclusion describes the artistic and scientific cultures as dysfunctional children who need to appreciate one another better ("Every humanist should read Nature." What?!) Art and Science are both important tools for exploring our world and ourselves. All human beings have the option to learn, appreciate, and participate in both. They are complementary, not mutually exclusive. But they are best appreciated within their own domain - and not force-fit into the other.
on 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). Gertrude Stein demonstrated that language did not necessarily have to make sense so long as the structure of the grammar remained intact. Lehrer finishes the novel with a chapter about Virginia Woolf, who dug deep into herself in an attempt to discover the source of our "self."
"This is the moral of Whitman's poetic sprawl: the human being is an irreducible whole" (Lehrer 5). Before and during Whitman's time, the common belief was that the body and spirit were two separate entities. Lehrer supplements Whitman's idea that our feelings are due to interactions between the mind and body by citing the work of Antonio Damasio. Damasio used four decks of cards where two decks contained big payouts and even bigger punishments and the other two decks had smaller payouts and very few punishments. He tested the electrical conductance of a test subject's palms and found that the subject's hand would get "nervous" just reaching toward the negative decks, long before the subject's mind understood.
I could not quite understand what Lehrer was getting at with this chapter. He mentions Eliot's idea that our ability to change ourselves gives us an innate freedom and then goes into details about neurogenesis and the fact that DNA does not determine our brains; however, the topics do not seem to really blend well. Steps following protein transcription from RNA involve plenty of changes that DNA does not determine, and the environment around any organism plays a huge role in how it behaves. I just could not find the connection between freedoms built into us with the neuroscience Lehrer chose to include.
Lehrer redeemed himself with this chapter. Escoffier's discovery of umami before it was scientifically investigated as well as his understanding of smell's involvement in taste and the power of suggestion made this chapter much more interesting to read than the previous Eliot chapter. Two studies, one on cheap red wine and the other on white wine with red food coloring, revealed what had to be an embarrassing truth about the power of suggestion to a decent number of wine experts.
Proust's thoughts on the memory meshed well with the discoveries in neuroscience. His verbose recollection of eating a madeleine and the memories that sprang from it match perfectly with the smell and taste "connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain's long-term memory" (Lehrer 80). The fallibility of memory that Proust realized is another intriguing aspect of neuroscience, the idea that we can "remember" something without actually experiencing it or the notion that "we have to misremember something in order to remember it" (Lehrer 89).
"Cezanne's epiphany was that our impressions require interpretation; to look is to create what you see" (Lehrer 97). Perception is such a huge part of our senses; Cezanne used his paintings to show us that we can use our minds to complete the picture. Lehrer's inclusion of two of Cezanne's paintings helped to supplement this idea. "His art shows us what we cannot see, which is how we see" (Lehrer 104). Lehrer could have completely skipped connecting Cezanne to neuroscience; the pictures speak for themselves.
Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf
After building up his evidence so well with the chapters on Escoffier, Proust, and Cezanne, Lehrer unfortunately began to lose me again with these last three chapters. Stravinsky "knew" that people's plastic brains could be taught to enjoy and feel new music, although the same could be said for Elvis Presley, Madonna, or any of the other breakthrough musical artists. Gertrude Stein attempted to show that the structure of language is built into us by making words meaningless. Lehrer made a good point that statistics could not truly determine the words in a sentence, as shown through some of Stein's improbably sentences, but the good points end there in that chapter. Virginia Woolf's ideas about the self were intriguing but lacked the connection to neuroscience that some of the other chapters possessed.
Proust Was a Neuroscientist was an interesting recreational read. The points where art and science blended seamlessly easily kept my attention; however, certain chapters lost the connection between the fields, and the book as a whole did not delve into neuroscience as much as I had hoped.
on April 10, 2010
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. How do you trust someone who biases the argument from the beginning?
It appears a major theme in this book is an argument against science as religion - the belief in the untestable hypothesis that science will ultimately be able to explain everything humans do and think and feel on a molecular basis. It is an important argument to make but the way the book is written, the author is preaching to the choir and is not going to convince anyone who holds the opposite belief or, more importantly, is not sure.
I give the author credit for being thought provoking and interesting. I just wish he would have written a balanced discussion so in the end he would be believable. I thought it was ironic that in the last chapter (Coda), he writes about the idea and failure of a third milieu in which the arts and the sciences could engage in a cross-dialog and draw from each other, and he then criticizes those who took this idea and used it as a prop for a rigid defense of the ultimate triumph of science over all. The irony is that the criticism he levies against the science writers, while accurate, could be used against him from the opposite angle for the entirety of this book. Frustrating.
on May 7, 2011
The idea that artists anticipated much of what we are now learning about the mind and brain is a compelling thesis, and could have made for a great book. Unfortunately, Lehrer is not the person to write that book. Repeatedly, he exhibits a shallow understanding of both the arts and neuroscience, and to make matters worse is a dull writer. The best of these essays read like the term papers of a promising undergraduate who needs several more years of schooling before publishing anything. The worst of these essays (e.g. Proust, Elliot) are just god-awful.
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. And such an approach will also assist in bringing together, or maybe even setting apart in a way that is justified by neuroscience, the sciences and the humanities.
The author ends the book longing for recognition of the arts as a legitimate mode of cognition; one that can offer paths to knowledge and insights that science may not be able at first to traverse. But with scientific studies of consciousness gaining credibility, and with phenomena such as synaesthesia being taken seriously by the scientific community, the author has no cause to worry. It is the brain that holds the key to the sciences and the humanities, and if it brings them together this will be fine for both artist and scientist. If it sets them apart, one can delight in the toggling between one and the other, engaging maybe in a temporary riot of mental cognition, much the same as what Stravinsky's audience did as detailed in this book. Either alternative is awesome.
on October 30, 2007
I have read numerous reviews of this book, and was afraid that it would be too difficult to understand, given the title and subject matter. I was surprised to find it clearly written and definitely accessible, even without a background in either art or science. I especially enjoyed the discussion of neuroscience advances in memory research. My favorite chapter was about the chef, Escoffier. It makes sense that chefs would discover how to manipulate our taste buds long before scientists could explain why something tastes so good.
Proust was a Neuroscientist is creative and original, and helped me think about the relationship between science and art in a new way. I recommend it.
on April 15, 2012
I enjoyed Lehrer's 2010 book, "How We Decide," and found some useful insights in his 2012 book, "Imagine," so I decided to go back and read his 2008 book, "Proust Was a Neuroscientist." What a huge disappointment. As a reader with a technical background and an ongoing interest in understanding the workings of the brain, I found the book to be filled with old news and broadly sweeping, but unsubstantiated, conclusions.
There are many examples. Lehrer explores the large role that random chance and chaos play in how our bodies and minds develop. He uses that to debunk the idea that our development is simply a clockwork that plays out precisely according to the program in our DNA. But then he goes a step too far and asserts that this random element proves that George Eliot was right, and each of us is "free, for the most part, to live as we choose to." He's wrong. No such thing is proven - adding an random element to the operation of a clock does not mean the clock has free will and can choose what time to display.
Also in the George Eliot discussion, Lehrer covers the relatively recent discovery of neurogenesis - the ability of parts of the adult brain to create new neurons. His conclusion is "Since we start each day with a slightly new brain, neurogenesis ensures that we are never done with our changes. In the constant turmoil of our cells - in the irreparable plasticity of our brains - we find our freedom." Please. Completely missing was any explanation of what kind of plasticity is enabled by neurogenesis that did not exist under the old model, where the brain modified itself by modifying synapses on existing neurons. How does that get us to "freedom?"
In a later chapter, Lehrer discusses Stravinsky's music. He latches onto important concepts - that music represents a balance between the expected and the unexpected, and also that our brains are plastic and that by listening to unfamiliar music, we can expand the "expected" category to include music that initially sounds to us like noise. But then he goes off the rails by closing the chapter with a value judgment that Stravinsky's music is good because only new and difficult-to-listen-to music has merit. He says about very familiar music that "the feeling would be drained out of the notes, and all we would be left with would be a shell of easy consonance, the polite drivel of perfectly predictable music." Anyone who has been deeply moved by listening to a piece of music they know well, perhaps a recording they have heard many times before, knows Lehrer's conclusion is nonsense. It's just a restatement of the conceit that good art has to make the audience suffer. The same bias undermines his discussion of Gertrude Stein.
In another chapter, Lehrer discusses how Cezanne's abstract still life paintings trigger the same neural responses as get triggered when someone looks at the real objects. Again, he's onto something significant - our response to Cezanne gives clues as to how visual scenes get processed in the brain. But that's all it is - equally significant clues come from our response to optical illusions or simple line-drawing caricatures that we recognize immediately. But again Lehrer leaps to a conclusion: "When we stare at Cezanne's painting, we are inside his head. There is a problem of judging with hindsight here, a problem that permeates the book. Subsequent scientific experiments have allowed us to appreciate how Cezanne's work relates to the operation of the brain's visual systems. But until the science was done, how were we to know whether Cezanne's work was more revealing of the brain's operations than were Jackson Pollock's pure abstracts? Or Rembrandt's highly-realistic portraits?
Each chapter opens with a discussion of the work of a specific artist, continues with a description of how that artist's world-view was in conflict with the scientific consensus of the time, and finishes with how science eventually caught up. It can be fun to see examples where specific artists were ahead of the scientists in their observations, but since it requires hindsight to figure out which artists were, in fact, ahead of the scientists, it's not a particularly useful exercise, and it doesn't teach us anything about how we should view artists today.
Readers approaching the book from a humanities background may feel that Lehrer's conclusions vindicate their sense that art contains truth that science has yet to recognize. But readers coming at the book from a scientific background will find those conclusions to be a mix of unsupported bias and the wisdom of hindsight.
This book is a mess. Give it a pass.
Jonah Lehrer is a polymath who, like the essays in his deliciously insightful book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, bridges the gap between Art and Science. Having worked in the kitchens of Le Cirque 2000 and Le Bernardin; and in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel; he is uniquely qualified to write a book of vivid cases where Artists prefigured the findings of modern neuroscience. He is both literally a Rhodes Scholar, and figuratively a 'lonely roads scholar.'
Besides Marcel Proust, there are essays on Walt Whitman, George Eliot, French Chef Auguste Escoffier, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf. Besides the Proust essay, which was brilliant as expected, I was most inspired by the essay on Auguste Escoffier--which was not expected. In fact, I was going to skip that one altogether, but lucky for me I didn't. It was a revelation about food and taste that had me verifying his hypothesises in my own Mod Noodle Kitchen. Least favorite essay was the one on Gertrude Stein. I wasn't intrigued at all by her experiments at automatic writing, nor was I enthralled by Lehrer's thesis that this somehow revealed a universal grammar and syntax underlying all languages. I vehemently and emphatically disagree.
I also have a beef with George Eliot, though Lehrer's essay on her did shed light on why she felt and wrote as she did. In Middlemarch both Dr. Tertius Lydgate and the Reverend Edward Casaubon are depicted as quixotically tilting at windmills. Lydgate was searching for the 'primitive tissue of life' while Casaubon's grail was "The Key to All Mythologies." Both men are reductionists who overestimate the explanatory powers of science. In the zeitgeist of Eliot's milieu, that flowering of rationality that would spawn the notion that men and their minds were merely matter that obeyed the laws of physics, and everything could be reduced to atoms, molecules, and chemical reactions, Eliot would at first embrace, and then reject, the philosophy of Positivism and its inherent reductionism. Lehrer's essay on George Eliot shows that Mary Ann Evans (Eliot's real name) was in love with biologist Herbert Spencer, who jilted her; so she grew disenchanted with both the man and Positivism. Spencer was a Social Darwinist who coined the phrase, "Survival of the Fittest." Eliot therefore enjoyed mocking him and his ideas, and Lydgate was Spencers's avatar. As for Casaubon, his quest for "The Key to All Mythologies" was doomed to failure, but mostly because he was a pretentious old fool who never really intended to publish anything but was fooling himself, along with the ardent young Dorothea Brooke, in order to shore up his delusions of grandeur.
It is my contention that "The Key to All Mythologies" is a syncretic idea that prefigures Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and if written, would have offered a way out of the cul de sac of chemical and biological reductionism that Eliot and modern civilization found themselves mired in. Rather than reduce the mysteries of life and consciousness down to a single key, it would have revealed the god-shaped hole, and the myriad ways people of all cultures and creeds have attempted to fill it. An acknowledgement of the mystery, and the fact that we will never know, rather than an arrogant claim that we have all the answers.
So, that is my beef with Eliot, and speaking of beef, that reminds me of the chapter on Auguste Escoffier. At about the same time as Escoffier was inventing Tournedos Rossini, 1907, Japanese Chemist Kikunae Ikeda was on a parallel quest to find the secret of "deliciousness" in food. The word "umami" describes the taste of deliciousness, a taste that is separate from the four known tastes: Salty, Bitter, Sweet, and Sour. Dashi is a broth used as the basis for numerous dishes, and it is there that Ikeda stalked the wild Umami. Dashi, made from kombu, a dried kelp, was found to contain L-glutamate. This is an amino acid released from protein as it is cooked, or as it ferments. It is found in Escoffier's veal stock, as well as in soy sauce, fish sauce, and parmesan and roquefort cheeses. It is found in high quantities in the British fermented yeast spread known as Marmite, which explains (although it doesn't excuse) Marmite. This chapter inspired me to cook up some red beans and rice, a perfect yin and yang combination of protein and carbohydrates. It was pretty umami, though not as umami as yo mama.
All in all, Proust Was a Neuroscientist is a brilliant collection of essays, chock full o' ideas, like Marmite is full of glutamate. It has enhanced my enjoyment of Marcel Proust just as his madeleine dissolved in tea enhanced his understanding of memory, and unleashed a torrent of revelations. As it bridges the gap between Science and Art, some may accuse Lehrer of fudging some of his facts to support his theories, but I say he is merely using poetic license. These essays are really about the ineffable workings of the mind, and as such the quotidian facts of neuroscience are not enough to express them. Proust was a neuroscientist, but he was also more than a Neuroscientist. He was an Artist.
on November 3, 2007
If you want to know how your brain works but have no desire to read a scientific treatise on the subject, then this book is for you. The premise is refined and beckoning. The name Proust in the title encouraged me to pick up the book, but perusing the jacket had me hooked. Artists as scientific validation? I had to find out how these two seemingly unique areas could be so intertwined. Reading each chapter, one must savor the full experience of what the author has written. I found taking a break between each new chapter revelation enabled me to reflect and find similar thoughts and discoveries in my own life and thoughts. This prepares you for the next disclosure. For the artist, reader and budding hedonist in you - this book will bring them all together.
on January 20, 2010
I read this book several weeks ago and originally had decided not to publish a review. However, as of my writing this, Lehrer is getting a little too beat up for my tastes - and undeservedly so. First, Lehrer is a smart guy. He is a Rhodes Scholar and he didn't just work in any old lab; he worked in Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel's (In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind) lab. Second, this is not a bad book, if you judge it for what it is.
There is a long standing feud between the Sciences and the Humanities. This feud was what inspired E. O. Wilson to write Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Another good book that covers this dichotomy is Human Nature: Fact And Fiction - Literature, Science And Human Nature. Bridging this gap is difficult to do, and with that as Lehrer's goal, I think he does a fine job. I don't actually believe in Lehrer's `heart-of-hearts' that he truly believes "Proust WAS a neuroscientist", he is simply trying his best to speak allegorically. The same is true for everyone in the book: 1) Walt Whitman - The Substance of Feeling, 2) George Eliot - The Biology of Freedom, 3) Auguste Escoffier - The Essence of Taste, 4) Marcel Proust - The Method of Memory, 5) Paul Cezanne - The Process of Sight, 6) Igor Stravinsky - The Source of Music, 7) Gertrude Stein - The Structure of Language and 8) Virginia Woolf - The Emergent Self.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed this book and have recommended it to others. There are indeed many things that Lehrer nails down tight and gets absolutely right. You could read either Brainstorming: Views and Interviews on the Mind or Mind and Consciousness: 5 Questions to see that this is so. His writing style is elegant and well-dressed. Lastly, I preferred this book to his newest one How We Decide, although they are quite different.