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Proust Was a Neuroscientistby Jonah Lehrer
The young Lehrer's keen portraits make for a winning read. Using Woolf, Stravinsky, Cézanne, Whitman, and a handful of others, he shows how art has given us as much insight into the human mind as science has.
Synopses & Reviews
From a rising journalist and Rhodes scholar, a dazzling look at how five writers, a painter, a composer, and a chef discovered the truth about the mind.
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 and original book, science is not the only path to knowledge. In fact, where the brain is concerned, art got there first.
Focusing on 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 human 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 Cezanne worked out the subtleties of vision; and how Gertrude Stein exposed the deep structure of language a full half-century before Chomsky. It's the ultimate tale of art trumping science.
More broadly, Lehrer shows that there is a cost to reducing everything to atoms and acronyms and genes. Measurement is not the same as understanding, and this is what art knows better than science. An ingenious blend of biography, criticism, and first-rate science writing, Proust Was a Neuroscientist urges science to listen more closely to art, for the right minds can combine the best of both to brilliant effect.
"'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 Czanne 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.' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Jonah Lehrer's smart, elegantly written little book expresses an appealing faith that art and science offer different but complementary views of the world. His main argument, that artists have often intuited essential truths about human nature that are later verified by scientific research, is hardly new. But he pursues this argument with freshness and enthusiasm in eight enjoyable case studies studded... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) with arresting sentences that voice the 25-year-old author's delighted sense of discovery. Lehrer has solid scientific credentials: He worked in the neuroscience lab of Nobel laureate Eric Kandel; he's been published in Nature and has written for the PBS program 'Nova Science Now'; he's an editor at large for the science magazine Seed. He lucidly explains the various scientific discoveries that confirmed Marcel Proust's understanding that smell and taste are powerful triggers of memory, Igor Stravinsky's assurance that familiarity will make us appreciate music we once thought ugly, Paul Cezanne's conviction that to truly see, 'the eye is not enough. One needs to think as well.' But it should be noted that these three chapters — as well as the five others on Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf — open and close with the artist's point of view. Lehrer's respect for science is real, and he's obviously sincere when he insists that 'every humanist should read "Nature."' But in the end, you can't help feeling that he really thinks every neuroscientist should read Proust. That's because the kind of science Lehrer celebrates is not an unwavering march from ignorance to enlightenment, the discovery of one eternal, universal law after another. On the contrary, it respects the messiness of experience just as art does. 'Every theory is imperfect,' he writes. 'Scientific facts are meaningful precisely because they are ephemeral, because a new observation, a more honest observation, can always alter them.' Neuroscientist Fred Gage, for example, was initially bewildered when he found that retrotransposons, 'junk genes that randomly jump around the human genome,' were present in unusually high numbers in brain cells, where they arbitrarily altered genetic programs. 'The brain seemed intentionally destructive,' as Lehrer vividly summarizes it. 'But then Gage had an epiphany. He realized that all these genetic interruptions created a population of perfectly unique minds. ... In other words, chaos creates individuality.' More than a century after 'Middlemarch,' science was buttressing George Eliot's insistence that the mind was 'not cut in marble,' that human thoughts and feelings were not wholly determined by immutable biology. From Eliot to junk genes is a characteristic train of thought in this lively text, which is impressionistic and suggestive rather than rigorous. That suits Lehrer's subjects, who are mostly modernists striving to dismantle art's conventional methods of reproducing reality and to come up with new ways of putting together sounds or words to capture our subjective experience of reality. (You have to stretch a bit to include Whitman and Eliot in this category, and French chef Escoffier simply won't fit — again, this author isn't unduly concerned with neatness.) I'm sure that specialists in the various fields he breezes through would find some of Lehrer's summaries sketchy, some of his connections tentative if not specious. General readers, however, will be happy to be carried along on the current of his aphoristic prose: 'Knowledge emerges from the litter of our mistakes'; 'The Rite of Spring' is 'the sound of art changing the brain'; 'Memory is fallible. Our remembrance of things past is imperfect.' Lehrer closes with an update of C.P. Snow's 1959 call for the 'two cultures' to learn from each other. He finds too many scientists still dismissive of anything that can't be reduced to facts and laws, too many glib postmodernist artists claiming that all truths are relative. This section, regrettably, reads like a hasty wrap-up written the night before the paper was due (the author is, after all, fairly recently out of school). Lehrer's belief that 'art and science might be reintegrated into an expansive critical sphere' is better served in the intelligently entertaining chapters that precede it." Reviewed by Wendy Smith, who is the author of 'Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Solid science journalism with an essayist's flair." Kirkus Reviews
"Brilliantly illustrated...amazing....[Jonah Lehrer's] clear and vivid writing — incisive and thoughtful, yet sensitive and modest — is a special pleasure." Oliver Sacks
"Jonah Lehrer provides a fresh and unique look at eight of the artists who define modern culture." Billy Collins, former poet laureate
"In this intriguing reflection...both art and science are freshly conceived." Howard Gardner
Lehrer argues in this original book that science is not the only path to knowledge. In fact, where the brain is concerned, art got there first. Focusing on a group of artists, Lehrer shows how each one discovered an essential truth about the human mind that science is only now rediscovering.
About the Author
Jonah Lehrer, age twenty-five, is editor at large for Seed magazine. A graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes scholar, Lehrer has worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and studied with Hermione Lee at Oxford. He has coauthored a peer-reviewed paper in Genetics and worked as a line cook at Melisse (in Los Angeles) and at Le Cirque 2000, and as a prep cook at Le Bernardin. As a journalist he has profiled Brian Greene and Elizabeth Gould, spent several days in the kitchen of the Fat Duck, and recorded bird songs and ruminated on Stravinsky for National Public Radio. He has written for Nature, NPR, NOVA, ScienceNow, and the MIT Technology Review, and writes a highly regarded blog known as the Frontal Cortex.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents:
1. Walt Whitman
The Substance of Feeling 1
2. George Eliot
The Biology of Freedom 25
3. Auguste Escoffier
The Essence of Taste 53
4. Marcel Proust
The Method of Memory 75
5. Paul Cézanne
The Process of Sight 96
6. Igor Stravinsky
The Source of Music 120
7. Gertrude Stein
The Structure of Language 144
8. Virginia Woolf
The Emergent Self 168
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