Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

Mariner, 2008, 242 pages, $14.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-547-08590-6

Decades after C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, the so-called divide between art and science continues to fascinate.  Are the two “cultures” still so completely incomprehensible to each other?  Why does this gap persist despite a wide acknowledgement of Snow’s thesis?  Is a true “third culture” even possible?

With Proust was a Neuroscientist, science journalist/editor Jonah Lehrer proposes that the work of artists through the ages has long hinted at natural truths that science has only recently acknowledged.  Marcel Proust’s exploration of the power of memory within In Search of Lost Time largely reflects what we have since learned about memory: how it interconnects with everything else, how it’s directly affected by smell and taste, how it mutates as it’s recalled, overwriting original memories with memories of the memory.  In eight successive chapters, Lehrer uses the work of a different artist as a springboard to discuss new developments in neuroscience, and then back again to an appreciation of the artist’s work.  It all makes for a serious, informative and compelling work of popular science/culture.

That’s why and how Proust was a Neuroscientist goes from Stravinsky to dopamine, from Walt Whitman to phantom limbs and from Gerdrude Stein to the structure of language by way of Chomsky.  The references in the book are as artistic as they are scientific, with literary quotations and historical overviews of the artist’s career alongside research paper summaries.  Getting the most out of Lehrer’s book involves knowing a lot about many things, but even those who may not know their Emerson from their Escoffier won’t have any trouble understanding most of it, Lehrer’s easy-to-read style betraying his experience working at mass-market periodicals.

Not every chapter is created equal, however, and so Lehrer really hits his stride in discussing George Eliott, leading to a luminously clear description of brain plasticity and how science has recently come to accept the once-heretical notion that neurons could reproduce in adults.  The Marcel Proust chapter is good enough to provide the book’s title, while discussing Paul Cézanne tells us a lot about vision, or more precisely how the images caught by our optics are then heavily post-processed by the brain.  But the best chapter of the book discusses turn-of-the-nineteenth-century chef Auguste Escoffier, which gently takes us from the codification of French cuisine to a discussion of umami and the mechanics of taste, recently up-ended after centuries of simple belief in sweet, sour, salty and bitter.  It’s good enough to read twice, especially if you have an interest in food.  (It also provides one of the book’s best lines in “Umami even explains (although it doesn’t excuse) Marmite, the British spread…” [P.60])  It’s enough to make us realize that Escoffier was a scientist in his own way, refusing accepted wisdom and only trusting the results of his experiments: there isn’t much of a humanities/science divide in a chef who relies on repeatability of experimental results.

But the same can’t always be said about the other seven artists discussed by Lehrer, from writers who instinctively knew things about the human condition to artists whose processes mirror latter discoveries.  Overly sensationalistic descriptions of the book (see how artists scooped science by hundreds of years!) do it a disservice: It’s far more satisfying to approach Proust was a Neuroscientist as another piece of evidence supporting perhaps the most obvious conclusion of all: Both artists and scientists are aiming at a common description of natural truth, and both toolsets, when best deployed, will end up describing the same thing from complementary perspectives.

The book closes on a meditation on C.P. Snow’s two cultures, and how even after more than fifty years, the gap between both remains significant.  More controversially, Lehrer writes that the current best-known examples of a “third culture” is essentially scientific vulgarization, which is essential in its own right, but often prone to the same pitfalls as scientific culture itself.  (Interestingly, while Lehrer does discuss Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday in favourable terms, he never mention Science Fiction at all.)  Perhaps there is a need for a truer third culture to stand aside and explore links between science and art without the preconceptions of either.  Readers, of course, are invited to find out for themselves how such a discipline would be helpful, starting with Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

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