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Science Needs Art: A Commentary on Jonah Lehrer's "Proust Was a Neuroscientist"

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Science Needs Art: A Commentary on Jonah Lehrer's "Proust Was a Neuroscientist"
Emily Levine

In Proust Was a Neuroscientist, author Jonah Lehrer accounts eight different artists from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to demonstrate the immediate connection between art and science with respect to knowledge and understanding the brain. Not only did these artists help us understand truths about the mind, they discovered them before science, each in an age where their creativity radically defied the face of modern science. In fact, each artist’s discoveries directly relate to the major building blocks we learned about and used in our class to explore the brain and behavior. Each example affirms Lehrer’s main point, that, “the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art” (x). As these eight artists demonstrate, art and science truly run hand in hand.

One of our first points of discussion, and a recurring theme in our class, was the relationship between neuronal connectivity and individuality. Artists George Eliot, Marcel Proust, and Igor Stravinsky all devoted themselves to some aspect along the spectrum of association between connectivity and individuality. Eliot explored the “biology of freedom”, arguing “that the most essential element of human nature was its malleability, the way each of us can ‘will ourselves to change’ (26). At the time, science believed we were completely determined by our genetic makeup. Eliot realized that although we might have some determinants (DNA), those boundaries actually allow for freedom in choice. In other words, “we evolved to never stop evolving” (43). DNA stands as a record of disorderly mutations. Life’s intrinsic chaos determines our individuality; it makes us without ordaining us. When first learning about neurons, the process of action potentials seemed so specific and invariable that many students began to doubt how the system could allow for individuality. However, we learned that with so many neurons in the brain, there are an infinite number of possible neuronal connections that can be made: our uniqueness depends on the fact that the materials are so standard. Just as Eliot predicted, life is “defined by a plasticity that defies every determinism” (52).

Marcel Proust explored the “method of memory”. This chapter fascinated me the most because when I read this chapter, we were starting to investigate neuronal connectivity in the context of motor coordination. An action is a pattern of activity across a lot of motor neurons, or, a motor symphony. A memory, then, is just a pattern of activity across a lot of neurons, depending on the connections between neurons and the synapses where these connections can change. Lehrer deepened my understanding of memory by reporting its mode for permanence. A reminder of a memory (like a smell or a taste) is built in to this pattern of activity. The reminder triggers “a rush of new neurotransmitters to the neurons representing [that memory]” (94), which in turn can activate a CPEB prion (a protein that can exist in two states: active and inactive. Neurotransmitters change the structure of the protein into its active state, which in turn mark a dendritic branch as a memory) to affect neighboring dendrites. Because prions can change form, “every time we conjure up our pasts, the branches of our recollections become malleable again. While the prions that mark our memories are virtually immoral, their dendritic details are always being altered” (94). Memories are specific, changeable patterns of neuronal activity; action potentials are all-or-nothing, neurons are isolated from each other, but the “empty” spaces between them allow for neuronal malleability and connection. Proust’s writing about memory described this scientific reality, as he believed people actually experienced it.

Igor Stravinsky also probed the malleability of our neuronal connections. Most importantly, “he realized that our sense of prettiness is malleable, and that the harmonies we worship and the tonic chords we trust are not sacred…music is nothing but a sliver of sound that we have learned how to hear” (123). Music begins when separate pitches are “melted into a pattern” (130), similar to how the brain interprets other senses, as I will discuss later in this commentary. Our brain extracts order from different sounds in order to tell us what we hear. Once the brain finds a pattern, it makes predictions about what notes will come next. The brain likes a pattern it knows: it likes what it can trust, what connections have already been made, and what it has already learned to hear. However, connections are malleable, and we are able to learn to like new songs. Igor Stravinsky’s radical, maddening ballet The Rite of Spring caused riots the first time it was performed because the audience hated its clashing chords, the sounds their brains had not yet learned how to hear. But within a few years, brains learned to hear Stravinsky’s discordant piece, and audiences met the piece with standing ovations. Like a memory is different each time we think about it because of the plasticity of established neuronal connections, the more times we listen to a piece of music, the more we change our neuronal connections associated with that piece. For example, I often follow this pattern with popular songs: I hate a song the first time I hear it, it grows on me, I listen to it on repeat because I like it so much, I start to hate it again because I have listened to it so much. Clearly, our neuronal connections are not set in stone.

Another piece of the individuality and connectivity puzzle that we learned about is the I-function, a number of connections among neurons that are responsible for you being “you”, for our sense of self. Both Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf’s philosophies rely on the I-function concept. Walt Whitman’s central poetic idea is that the body and mind are inseparable: the “substance of feeling” comes from both the mind and the body, or, the soul depends on the body just as much as it depends on the head.  At the time, science believed that feelings only came from the mind and that the body was “just a lump of inert matter” (2); however, science soon began to prove Whitman’s revelations to be true, learning that “the body was the source of feelings. The flesh was not a part of what we felt, it was what we felt” (17). This section of the book totally reminded me of our class discussions about quadriplegic Christopher Reeves. Christopher Reeves’ limbs were not his own because they were no longer connected to his I-function. While his limbs were capable of movement, he could not control them because they were not “his own”. As science determined by studying phantom limb syndrome, “the brain depended upon the body for its feelings and identity” (14). In other words, without the connections to the body, the I-function would have no thing to identify with, as Reeve could not control his body once it was disconnected from the I-function. 

            Virginia Woolf’s art actually foretold the I-function: she searched for “whatever held us together” (169) and found the self. As Lehrer says, Virginia Woolf “realized that the self makes us whole. It is the fragile source of our identity, the author of our consciousness. If the self didn’t exist, then we wouldn’t exist” (169). Again, just like when Christopher Reeve’s sense of self ceased to exist (for his body below his neck), it ceased to belong to him. The self, the I-function, acts as the “perceiver” for our perception. Furthermore, Virginia Woolf’s writing exposes the fact that “the self emerges from the chaos of consciousness”, fragments of impressions, ever changing yet held together by this identity. We invent ourselves from our sensations. This reminded me of our class discussion about neo-cortical damage in the V1 region, and Lehrer actually cites this phenomenon as proof of Woolf’s points. The V1 region of the neo-cortex is a main section responsible for vision. When this region becomes damaged, patients become consciously blind meaning they can see unconsciously but are missing awareness. Their nervous systems can receive visual information, but this information cannot get to the I-function, and thus the patient cannot consciously access this information. A patient with conscious blindness can point to where a light flashed without having “seen” it. Lehrer concludes that, “a sensation separated from the self isn’t a sensation at all” (184). Just as Woolf and Whitman predicted, science discovered later: our sense of self and consciousness depend on our neural connections to the I-function. Any processes that occur without a connection to the I-function go on unconsciously, whether movement or sensation.

             Other artists in Proust Was a Neuroscientist explored some facet of sensation. Lehrer’s chapter about Cézanne and the “process of sight” shows how the mind takes sensory input as suggestions but actually creates our sense of reality.  We spent a couple of weeks in class talking about vision and ultimately came to the same conclusion. The mind makes informed guesses about what is out there (from visual input via the retina) and constructs a reality from the bits of information it gets. This was personally my favorite chapter because I consider Cézanne to be one of the greatest geniuses of the visual art world, as Cézanne’s art exposes the process of sight. Cezanne constructs his paintings using patches and layers of paint; he does not use borders, and yet we can always recognize the subject. As Lehrer puts it, “the painting emerges, not from the paint or the light, but from somewhere inside our mind”. We process “patches of color” and often in the real world different values of light and dark separated by edges, using visual cues, previous experience, and thousands of concepts to evaluate what we see. Cézanne used to his advantage the fact that our minds must complete the impressions given by sensory input to give us a seamless sense of reality. Ultimately, Cézanne foretold that our visual experiences surpass our visual sensations.

Lehrer’s chapter about chef Auguste Escoffier explores this same idea, but with the sense of smell. As Lehrer explains with Escoffier’s cooking, the taste of most flavors largely depends on what we smell. This is because (as we just saw with vision) when we process sensory input, we unconsciously “make judgments about what we think we are sensing” (67). Escoffier recognized the power of suggestion, as he “realized that what we taste is ultimately an idea, and that our sensations are strongly influenced by their context” (69). Our senses are interconnected, working together to give our brains a taste of what is out there (pun intended), so our brain in turn can use this information with its own background knowledge to help us function in the world. This conclusion reminds me of our class discussion about synethesia, in which one type of sensory stimulation evokes the actual sensation of another. The phenomenon of synethesia emphasizes the fact that our sensory systems are not as separated as we often think them to be. Our brain uses all of our sensory inputs, wherever they come from, to construct our reality.

            Gertrude Stein’s exploration of the structure of language also relates to the picture of sensation we have created in our class. For me, this was the densest chapter within the book: the concepts were rather hard to grasp. Gertrude Stein’s philosophy is that language is innate. Although “language” is not a sensation, this chapter reminded me of the same ideas found in the previous paragraph. As Lehrer writes, “we are constantly re-coding our sensations, discovering patterns in the randomness. This is how we see reality: not as bits, but as chunks” (159). In terms of Gertrude Stein’s writing, we understand language as patterns from randomness. Although all languages might sound different, their structures are more or less the same, or, “they share the same subterranean form” (162). We have an innate concept of language that lets us compose words “within a structure that is at once subtle and inescapable” (162), creating patterns from randomness. Although this might be hard to conceive (it was for me!), think about language in terms of vision as explained earlier. Our brains hold a concept of each “thing” in our head: in terms of vision, these are objects like an apple, the sky, a bench, a shoe, etc., but now we are considering this concept to be language. What we see is a construction of bits of information into “chunks” and we can identify these chunks because of our “thingly” concepts. Our brain finds patterns in randomness and uses these patterns as visual cues. Similarly, our innate concept of language lets us identify chunks of words, using patterns and structure as clues. In essence, what Gertrude Stein discovered about language, Cézanne discovered about vision and Escoffier discovered about smell.

            What these eight stories reiterated for me the most is the idea of “loopy science”. In each chapter, the specific artists’ philosophies seemed to lay completely contrary to popular science’s views. Lehrer depicts science to be a body of facts: established discoveries were set-in-stone truths, authorities on the natural world. These eight artists made new observations that questioned this established, authoritative knowledge. In these cases, art acted as a way of making sense of what is, and even more, as a way of exploring what might yet become. Furthermore, these artists showed that art explains the reality of science, what we actually experience, as opposed to the deeply abstract molecular networks that scientific study often bases itself on. For any scientists that firmly believe in rationality and conventional knowledge, let this book be a lesson to you!


Lehrer, Jonah. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. New York, NY: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008.