Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Proust was a Neuroscientist: True Efforts towards a Third Culture or Just a Pretty Narrative?

bpyenson's picture

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”-- C. P. Snow

    In his first book, Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer sets out to bridge the gap of understanding between Art and Science insofar as both have attempted to understand observations of the Mind.  Lehrer looks at eight 19th and 20th century artists, to each of whom he ascribes a different mental insight: Walt Whitman and perception; George Eliot and human freedom; Auguste Escoffier and taste; Marcel Proust and memory; Paul Cezanne and vision; Igor Stravinsky and hearing; Gertrude Stein and language; and Virginia Woolf and consciousness.  He then parallels these insights from Art with more recent attempts in Neuroscience to uncover the same insights.

Lehrer succeeds in capturing the attention of the reader by showing how the pursuits of Art and Science are parallel towards achieving a similar goal of describing the world as he rhetorically poses the question, “What does this novel or experiment or poem or protein teach us about ourselves? How does it help us understand who we are? What long-standing problem has it solved?” [1]. In this vein, he deserves accolades for attempting to rescue Snow’s dream of a “third culture” linking Snow’s ‘two cultures’ of incommunicable language between the arts and sciences. In his efforts to present a cohesive and fluid narrative between accounts of art and science, however, Lehrer often overlooks the inconsistencies in the details of the art and science, making them less confluent than he suggests.  From my experience doing science, I am cognizant that his reduced description of scientific phenomena often gives an oversimplified understanding of the science that led to the insight.

When describing taste, Whitman accurately demonstrates how the chef Auguste Escoffier, through the art of cooking, acknowledged that deglazing was the trick that made his food delicious.  This fact was then supported by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in his discovery of L-glutamate.  By distilling seaweed, Ikeda eventually isolated L-glutamate as the source of deliciousness in dishes, also known as Umami. In contrast, Lehrer describes how 20th century neuroscientists later deduced Whitman’s revelation of the unity of the mind and body in his poetry empirically.  Specifically, Lehrer asserts that, because of Whitman’s experience as a medic in Civil War hospitals, as well as his observations of slavery in the South led him to believe that, “the body and mind are inseparable.” [1].  This notion of the unity of the mind and body does not seem to be quite the same phenomenon that modern neuroscience uncovered, however, according to Lehrer’s account.  Specifically, he cites the work of Antonio Damasio on the origin of feeling who learned that, “the mind stalks the flesh; from our muscles we steal our moods.” [1].  While these two notions are related in that both propose a connection between the body and mind, Whitman’s account suggests a total unity of body and mind, while Damasio more specifically suggests an origin of mental process within the body.  This inconsistency remains unacknowledged and glossed over by Lehrer, who views both as descriptive of the same phenomenon, “Neuroscience now knows that Whitman’s poetry spoke the truth: emotions are generated by the body.” [1].  As he states earlier, Whitman proposed no such origin of emotion within muscles, but only suggested that the two entities were intertwined.

    When describing memory, Lehrer promises a unified narrative that shows the molecular biology and Proust in mutual support, however, the less wrong narrative may be that much of the molecular biology surrounding memory may not support the conclusion Lehrer suggests. (for a more in-depth analysis of this chapter and phenomenon, see my 2nd web paper on Proust and Long-Term Memory Formation).  Indeed, Lehrer draws clever connections between Proust and research on Short and Long-Term Memory, implicating the prion-like properties of the CREB protein as the molecular analog to explain Proust’s observation on the constantly reforming memory [1].  At the same time, however, Lehrer overlooks the possibility implicit in the scientific literature on synaptic plasticity and CREB-isoforms that another protein within the mutable synapse could have been acted upon instead of CREB by the prion-like gene [2].  For the fluidity of his narrative, though, Lehrer conveniently avoids discussing these discordant findings.
Perhaps Lehrer’s ability to get the link between science and art ‘less wrong’ at certain points and ‘more wrong’ at others has less to do with the existing work, and more to do with the complexity of the phenomena he details.  Maybe, as observers, our definition of phenomena such as perception as well as consciousness may be so broad because a current understanding of these occurrences remains inadequate.  Maybe taste is better defined than perception and memory.  As a result, an effort to link up scientific with artistic descriptions of these phenomena will not be reconciled because both disciplines are probably not describing the same thing!
Like the variability inherent in the nervous system, and the inherent subjectivity inherent in every subject’s perception of the universe, it seems that Lehrer has surreptitiously avoided the inconvenient fact that the artists and scientists may have been uncovering slightly different narratives.  Since everyone perceives things differently, were these different individuals truly describing different phenomena, are the inconsistencies between their descriptions of the phenomena attributable to the inadequacies of language and plurality through which we all struggle.

Lehrer criticizes current science writers, such as E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, who demonstrate a link between the arts with the sciences so that art can serve to advance science, and in the process have, “failed to bridge the divide between our two existing cultures...Scientists and artists continue to describe the world in incommensurate language.”  Due to his inability to reconcile disparate narratives from the arts and science in his chapters, as well as his overlooking of critical scientific details, it is unclear by the end of his book whether Lehrer himself has joined their ranks as a hypocrite of the failed ‘third culture’ as well.  Undoubtedly, Lehrer deserves praise for his attempts to unify these disparate accounts of phenomena, however he should be more careful about drawing his comparisons and attentive to the evidence he uses in his arguments.

Works Cited:

[1] Lehrer, Jonah. Proust was a Neuroscientist. New York: First Mariner Books, 2007.

[2] Duman, Ronald S. and Samuel S. Newton (2007) “Epigenetic Marking and Neuronal 
Plasticity.” Biological Psychiatry. 62: 1-3.