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Proust Was a Neuroscientist (thoughts)

February 24, 2009

Science Book ChallengeFor my second Science Book Challenge read, I decided on a slim volume whose title promised reader-ly appeal: Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. And I’m happy to say I can recommend it without reservation! According to his ‘Acknowledgements,’ while Lehrer isn’t a neuroscientist himself, he did work in a neurosurgery lab for several years and obviously love science. While reading the book, I kept thinking ‘Renaissance Man’ to myself; Lehrer wants to explore how art and science can complement each other, or as he puts it:

This book is about artists who anticipated the discovery of neuroscience. It is about writers and painters and composers who discovered truths about the mind-real, tangible truths-that science is only now rediscovering. Their imaginations foretold the facts of the future.


and I think he does so wonderfully.

That isn’t to say that Lehrer makes a case that the various artists profiles literally created scientific theories that could have been published in journals. He argues that they found intuitive truths in their art regarding the human brain that science is now discovering for itself. I love this passage, also from the prelude…it’s long but worth it:

Unfortunately, our current culture subscribes to a very narrow definition of truth. If something can’t be quantified and calculated, then it can’t be true. Because this strict scientific approach has explained so much, we assume that it can explain everything. But every method, even the experimental method, has limits. Take the human mind. Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details; they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness. The moral of this book is that we are made of art and science. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we also just stuff.


Along with the prelude and coda, which discuss the importance of artists and scientists cooperating, the book is made of of eight essays. Each one is about twenty to thirty pages long, and combines biography with a critical look at the artist’s work with a summary of a certain neuroscience discovery, and weaves it altogether in impeccable prose.  As a non-scientist, I found Lehrer’s science writing understandable as well as interesting.  And there are short, interesting footnotes throughout (love footnotes!). I’m in awe of Lehrer’s accomplishments, quite frankly. The eight artists profiled are Walt Whitman, George Eliot, August Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf. Lehrer is thus equallyat home in literature, cooking, art, music, and science. Colour me green with envy already!

This is really a gem of a book, and one I’d recommend to anyone interested in the human experience. I just hope Lehrer writes more in the future!

Notable Passages
But Laplace didn’t limit himself to the trajectory of Jupiter or the rotation of Venus. In his book Essai sur Les Probabilities, Laplace attempted to apply the probability theory he had invented for astronomy to a wide range of other uncertainties. He wanted to show that the humanities could be ‘rationalized,’ their ignorance resolved by the dispassionate logic of math. After all, the principles underlying celestial mechanics were no different than those underlying social mechanics. Just as an astronomer is able to predict th efuture movement of a planet, Laplace believed that before lognhumanity would be able to reliably predict its own behavior. It was all just a matter of computing the data. He called this brave new science “social physics.”

The genius of the scientific method, however, is that it accepts no permanent solution. Skepticism is its solvent, for every theory is imperfect. Scientific facts are meaningful rpecisely because they are ephemeral, because a new observation, a more honest observation, can always alter them.

Even identical twins with identical DNA have strikingly dissimilar brains. When sets of twins perform the same task in a functional MRI machine, different parts of each cortex become activiated. If adult twin brains are dissected, the details of their cerebral cells are entirely unique. As Elito wrote in the preface to Middlemarch, “the indefininteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than anyone would imagine.”

The story of umami begins at about the sam time Escoffier invented tournedos Rossini, a filet ignonserved with foie grasand sauced with a reduced veal stock and a scattering of black truffles. The year was 1907, and Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda asked himself a simple question: What does dashi taste like? Dashi is a classic Japanese broth made from kombu, a dried form of kelp. Since at least A.D. 797, dashi has been used in Japanese cooking the same way Escoffier used stock, as a universal solvent, a base for every dish. But to Ikeda, the dashihis wife cooked for him every night didn’t taste like any of the four classic tastes or even like some unique combination of them. It was simply delicious. Or, as the Japanese would say, it was umami.
And so Ikeda began his quixotic quest for this unknown taste.

Since many odors differ only in their molecular details-and we long ago traded away nasal acuity for better color vision-the brain is often forced to decipher smells based upon non-olfactory information. Parmesoncheese and vomit, for example, are both full of butyric acid, which has a pungent top note and a sweetish linger. As a result, blindfolded subjects in experiments will often confuse the two stimuli. In real life, however, such sensory mistakes are extremely rare. Common sense overrules our actual senses.

Long after our other senses have settled down, our senses of taste and smell remain in total neural flux. Nature designed us this way: the olfactory bulb is full of new neurons. Fresh cells are constantly born, and the survival of these cells depends upon their activity. Only cells that respond to the smells and tastes we are actually exposed to survive. Everything else withers away. The end result is that our brains begin to reflect what we eat.

Neuroscience now knows that Proust was right. Rachel Herz, a psychoogistat Brown, has shown-in a science paper wittily entitled “Testing the Proustian Hypothesis”-that our senses of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental. This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory. Their mark is indelible. All our other senses (sight, touch, and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source of language and the front door to consciousness. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past.

It shows us that every time we remember anything, the neuronal structure of the memory is delicately transformed, a process called reconsolidation. …The memory is altered in teh absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what you remember and more about you. So the purely objective memory, the one “true” to the original taste of the madeleine, is the one memory you will never know.

Cezanne abstracted nature beacuse he realized that everything we see is an abstraction. Before we can make sense of our sensations, we have to impress our illusions upon them.

Hair cells are arranged like the keys on a piano. On one end, they are tuned to respond to high-frequency sounds, while at the other end they are bent by the throb of low frequency. When a scale is played, the hair cells mirror the escalating notes. They sway in time with the music, deftly translating the energy of noise into a spatial code of electricity.

But before a pattern can be desired by teh brain, that pattern must play hard to get. Music only excites us when it makes the auditory cortex struggle to uncover its order. If the music is too obvious, if its patterns are always present, it is annoyingly boring. This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. The longer we are denied teh pattern we expect, the great the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2009 7:49 am

    Hmmmm… I was skeptical about this book, but the passages you posted really do sound nice as well as appropriately grounded in fact. I might take this one out of the library one of these days (provided I get the urge to read science stuff in my free time! Being around it for most of the day generally makes me want to escape into fiction.).

  2. February 24, 2009 8:41 am

    Sounds like a great choice for the Dewey Decimal challenge. What century is science?

    I had an English prof in graduate school who read all of Charles Dickens to his wife, over many years of marriage. His wife was a doctor/psychiatrist. He claimed that she was able to diagnose most of Dickens characters based on the descriptions he gave of them. Turns out Dickens was something of a scientist himself and didn’t know it.

  3. February 24, 2009 8:50 am

    This sounds wonderful. I admit that my insufficient knowledge of anything Proust has turned me off to this title. All the more reason to read this AND Proust, I’m sure.

  4. February 24, 2009 9:10 am

    Ha! I took this very book out of the library just last week, along with Proust and the Squid (which may prove too neurological; we’ll see), because it is so highly recommended. Now you like it, too. That bumps it up a few spaces on the pile. Someday maybe I’ll even get to Proust himself…ha!

    (note to CB–is this okay?–it’s a 700)

  5. February 24, 2009 10:38 am

    It’s funny how many literate people don’t actually know much about science (and how many scientists are great readers of literature). That’s based on an unscientific study of my own, by the way! This book sounds very interesting. Thank you for your thorough review.

  6. February 24, 2009 11:14 am

    I’m so glad to see you enjoyed this book so much! I bought this for Rich last Christmas thanks to Dewey’s recommendation. He hasn’t read it yet, but I’m now thinking maybe I should.

  7. February 24, 2009 12:12 pm

    I haven’t made my reading list for the science challenge yet but may read this one. It doesn’t sound too technical so I can probably understand it.

  8. February 24, 2009 12:16 pm

    This sounds like an interesting one Eva. The concept sounds a little like a book by Australian author, Sue Woolfe called “The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady” where she explores creativity and neuroscience.

  9. tuulenhaiven permalink
    February 24, 2009 1:11 pm

    I just finished Swann’s Way, by Proust so the title of this book caught my eye. It sounds really fascinating. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

  10. February 24, 2009 1:48 pm

    I’ve been wanting to read this for a while…thanks for sharing the review.

  11. February 24, 2009 2:10 pm

    This sounds fascinating. I love both art and science, so a book that combines both has a good chance of being a winner. And I love all those passages!

  12. February 24, 2009 2:15 pm

    I don´t read much about science. When I do, it is usually about medical research or something connected to phorensics. (In other words, whenever science is related to crime fiction, I can swallow nearly anything).

  13. February 24, 2009 6:10 pm

    I first saw this on Dewey’s blog and then I saw it was on your reading list; I was hoping to read a good review! I think I may move it up my list…Sounds great!

  14. February 24, 2009 8:47 pm

    I loved this book, and then I gave it away to a former English/Psych teacher of mine in hopes that he would love it as well … and while I don’t regret the gesture, I kind of miss the text! I’d especially like to read the Stravinsky chapter again, now that my choir is singing Symphony of Psalms — just might have to get it from the library!

  15. February 24, 2009 8:58 pm

    Steph, I think you’ll enjoy it. :) But I understand not wanting to be around science if it’s what you do all day!

    CB, I have no idea, but one of the other commentators helpfully said the 700s. ;) (I used to be awesome at Dewey, then I worked at my college library w/ the LoC system.)

    Care, I’ve never read any Proust, and I feel no real desire to, and I still enjoyed it! :)

    DS, thanks for answering CB’s question! I can’t wait to see what you think. And I want to know how you find Proust and the Squid. :)

    Bloglily, interesting! In my experience at college, the science majors thought fiction was a waste of time. And the English majors thought science was a waste of time. I was neither! ;)

    Debi, I think you’d really like it. And the chapters are so self-contained, it’d be easy to read one and then put the book down for awhile. Which is important in a busy life like yours!

    Violette, it’s definitely not uber-technical.

    Karen, what a great title! (Almost as good as Sacks’ classic!) I’ll have to look into it. ;)

    Tuulenhaiven, I’m impressed-Proust’s one of those authors that intimdates me!

    Rebecca, no problem!

    Nymeth, I think you’d really enjoy it. :D

    Dorte, he doesn’t talk about anything crime-related, unfortunately.

    Rebecca, yep-it definitely gets a good review! I was a little wary because of all the hype, but it’s well deserved. I want to own this one someday-partly because the cover’s gorgeous!

    Christine, if I owned my own copy, I don’t think I could give it up! But I bet your prof really loved it. :)

  16. February 25, 2009 6:38 am

    I read this book several months ago and loved it. I’ve been trying to get my bookworm friends to read it but so far none have responded to my recommendation. Science just scares people. I thought since this book was doing a Malcolm Gladwell kind of fun tour of science and artists it would be more appealing. Right after reading Proust Was a Neuroscientist I started reading The Canon by Natalie Angier, a book about why the public hates science. She does a mighty job of trying to make science a far out fun subject, especially using her chatty woman’s point-of-view, but ultimately, for some unknown reason, the average reader loves science only a little more than they love math.

  17. February 26, 2009 6:11 pm

    I’m very glad to read your positive review, as I love books about art and science, and this one sounds like something I would like. Very good news that you enjoyed it so much!

  18. February 26, 2009 9:04 pm

    In my usual nefarious fashion I’ve snatched your thoughts into a book note, and a great note it is, too.

    In the passage above about science and one “truth” I think he sets up a strawman argument–science does not really insist that its truth is the only truth, but that’s a small matter in the context. Okay, so maybe I’ll have a few arguments with him over philosophy of science, but it still sounds like a great read with good, thought provoking stuff.

    And that’s what I like, science and humanities, even though I’m a scientist!

  19. February 27, 2009 11:39 pm

    James, I loathed The Canon…mainly for it’s writing style. But that’s just me!

    Dorothy, I definitely think this is your style book!

  20. February 28, 2009 6:59 am

    Eva, by any chance did you loath the style of writing in The Canon because it was so feminine in such a masculine subject? Her style often startled me, but each time I would tell myself that it was cool. Women are becoming part of science, and we can’t expect them join the old boys club without bringing some feminine touches. After awhile I got to enjoy Natalie’s particular (peculiar) way of putting things.

    By the way I listened to the book and her style comes through much stronger that way. In a book that examines why science is not popular, we have to consider gender issues too. And in a book that tries so hard to popularize science, to have a woman loath another woman’s writing style is revealing. Of course, this is assuming you were reacting to her obviously female way of putting things.

  21. March 9, 2009 7:57 pm

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been curious about this book, and you convinced me to add it to my TBR pile!

  22. December 4, 2009 9:20 pm

    LOVED IT!!! and I’m even intrigued enough to read Proust and Stein and give a better looksee at a few Cezanne works and can’t wait to read ALL of Woolf’s! :)


  1. Support Your Library Challenge Wrap Up « A Striped Armchair
  2. Proust Was a Neuroscientist « Care's Online Book Club
  3. December Challenge Wrap-Ups « A Striped Armchair
  4. The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

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