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Book Commentary of Proust was a Neuroscientist

Anna G.'s picture

In a masterfully weaved tale, Jonah Lehrer discusses a variety of artistic masterpieces and the underlying neurobiology. Lehrer tells this story in hope that one day we will have what he dubs a 4th culture, where scientists and artists can talk and really understand and appreciate each other. In this short but sweet book, Lehrer discusses the artistic advances of eight different artists. Though they may have been viewed as eccentric or crazy in their own times, Lehrer discusses how their artistic insight pinpointed neurobiological facts that have later been uncovered.


He opens up with the writings of Walt Whitman. Whitman wrote passionately about the fusion of body and soul. Whitman believed that we didn’t “have a body, but we are a body.” While at the time of his writing, people were shocked and appalled by some of Whitman’s more erotic writings, he defended his poetry with the logic that, “Just like leaves of grass grow out of the dirt, feelings grow out of the flesh - the body and the mind are inseparable.” And Whitman’s writings are becoming more validated everyday. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in particular has become a prominent spokesperson for the fact that emotion stimuli can have an affect on physical viscera.


Lehrer next takes a look at the Victorian novelist George Eliot. Eliot lived in a time when positivism was flowering, and the belief in determinism was beginning to take hold on the prominent thinkers of the time. But Eliot didn’t buy in. She believed in the fluidity of mind, the ability of the human’s to change their condition. Like the heroine in Middlemarch, we are all free to change the conditions in which we live. Since Victorian times, scientific discoveries have exploded, and we’ve come to see the more we understand, the more there is to understand, the more widely the door is open for chance and free will to change situations. See “The Flexibility of the Mind” for more on this.


Steering away from writers, Lehrer next takes up the artistic flair of the chef, Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier was a French chef who “invented” veal stock. He is the chef of modern ay cooking, known for his sauces. His masterpiece was his deglazing process. He would cook a piece of meat at high temperatures, and then added a rich sauce such as veal stock. As the liquid evaporates, it loosens the burnt pieces from the pan, releasing the flavor that has given him his place in culinary history. The science of this taste was discovered by a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, and was given a Japanese name, umami, or delicious. The molecule that stimulated this taste was distilled, and found to be L-glutamate. When whole, the protein glutamic acid has no taste, but when broken down, such as by Escoffier’s method, it becomes L-gluatamate.


Lehrer next moves on to discuss the novelist Marcel Proust. Proust wrote in incredible detail, writing from bed, novels of memory and recollection. In particular, he was well known for his digression from current day when he tastes a Madeline soaked in tea, and is transported back to his youth. And science has born out his art. Smell and taste have been found to be intrinsically tied in with emotional memory. Lehrer even brings up the hypothesis of his former mentor, who has hypothesized that prions (proteins which transit information through a change in shape) called CREBs are actually responsible for sentimental memories. For more on this, see “Emotions: the key to rational thought?


Cézanne is the next artist discussed, in reference to the process of sight. He painted with the philosophy that, “The eye is not enough. One needs to think as well.” Without painting boundaries or sharp lines, Cézanne shows us pictures as the brain first sees them, as clusters of light. Cézanne allows us to appreciate the process our brain goes through, in resolving color strokes into a vision, a picture, with boundaries and subjects. It has been increasing apparent to neuroscientists that top down processing from our cortex is absolutely necessary for us to see. The neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about a patient he had who had a cortical lesion. Because of this, the patient saw all of life like a Cézanne painting. When confronted with a rose, he described it as, “A convoluted red form with a linear green attachment.” There is no reality in what we see, but rather it is created by our brain and our eyes to give us a navigatable vision of the world, and Cézanne’s paintings highlight that process.


The book next moves on to the music of Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s goal in writing music was to be the most modern composer around, and he certainly became so. At the premiere of his first piece, the Rite of Spring, a riot broke out. The dissonant sounds of his piece angered the eager and anticipatory crowd, who had expected mild and pleasing Chopin-like music. In his music, Stravinsky had understood that what is pleasing to the ear is expected pleasant sounds, so to create a modern and different type of music, he decided to give the people sounds they didn’t expect, that were jarring upon their ears. Wagner had created the quintessential grand music with his Ring Cycle, and Bach’s music had become the epitome of precise music, so what was left for Stravinsky was to tear down what existed and build anew. But Stravinsky also knew that sounds weren’t permanent. The brain would influence what people heard, so that his sounds that were at first dissonant and unpleasant would soon become music people would want to listen to. Our ear hears patterns of music from single notes; what makes music interesting is our struggle to uncover the order underneath. Traditional music introduces a tonal chord to begin with, then toys with the listens until the end when it re-introduces the chord in a pleasurable ending. Stravinsky’s music was so difficult to uncover that it took people time to appreciate its complex beauty. However, after a few years, the Rite of Spring was receiving standing ovations. This is due to the corticofugal network. This network takes a pattern of noise heard and memorizes it, rearranging the auditory cortex through dopamine signaling, so when in the future this pattern is heard again, it is easier to hear and enjoy. Stravinsky had the insight to see this, and challenged his listeners to really hear music by constantly changing his style. He said, “To listen is an effort and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”


The next artist Lehrer chooses to discuss is Gertrude Stein. Stein was a writer who wanted to show the world that words were just that, arbitrary signifiers which have been given meanings by us. She is most famous for her phrase, ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.” This statement is ironically made to show that a rose is not a rose, the words themselves have no thorns or leaves or fragrance. She wrote long, difficult books which had no plot, where the subjects were not the subjects, but were just nouns in exercises in grammar and sentence structure. She preempted the concepts that Noam Chomsky made famous years later, about the innate structure of grammar emerging from our brain processes. Like Stravinsky, Stein wrote books to make the reader consciously see what the brain does to process grammar by breaking the rules. Stein said that the only way to read her books was, “to proofread them.”


The final artist that is discussed is Virginia Woolf. Woolf wrote to display human nature; to show where the idea of self emerges from. She concluded that when we take in sensory input, we create a subject for our perception, and that subject is our self, or our I-function. We are the sum of our senses, as Woolf put it, ‘We are the words, we are the music, we are the thing itself.” The characters in her novels have “fragmentary souls.” Their existence in itself is doubted, and their self is constantly in conflict, with the self being subject to the whim of uncontrollable feelings and sensations. Science has shown to be in accordance with this view, with researchers showing that the brain can only sustain a stream of conscious though for about 10 seconds. Despite exhaustive searches, no Cartesian theatre in the mind has been found, where thoughts are assembled and viewed. From experiments with split brain patients, researchers Sperry and Gazzaniga have made the scientific community confront the reality that consciousness is not localized, but emerges from widespread processes in the brain. Woolf concluded that the self existed, if only as “a slight of the mind’ in order to make sense of the discontinuous thoughts and steams of consciousness we perceive when we give our attention to the world. To further understand how the self discerns what to give its conscious attention to, neuroscientist Christof Koch is looking for what he calls the NCC (neural correlate of consciousness) in the brain. By showing the eyes two different images, he hopes that the moment when the person becomes aware of the artificiality of their vision, he can find the part of the brain that decides which eye to pay attention to. However, the self, or the I-Function, is elusive and complex, and due to its emergent properties may never be fully elucidated.


These eight artists all had a vision that they discovered through living life. Their experiment was trying to represent the world as they knew it, and in trying, they managed to stumble upon truths of life that scientist today are just beginning to elucidate and understand. This book does an excellent job of tying together the world of art and science, and displaying how in reality, both are simply ways for us to determine reality. While perhaps some of the science behind Lehrer’s claims needs more research to be done to support it, that doesn’t take away from the job he has done in creating a story that we all can understand to learn from. I highly recommend this book as both a fun read, and a way to increase one’s literacy in scientific discoveries as well as modern artistic matters.



1. Lehrer, J (2007). Proust was a neuroscientist. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin


Paul Grobstein's picture

art and science ....

So the two actually have something useful to say to one another? Are perhaps more similar than different?