Proust was a neuroscientist?

Jonah LehrerAs if to build on our recent discussions of clashing historiographic sensibilities (see part 1, 2 & 3), All in the Mind recently turned its attention to Jonah Lehrer‘s book: Proust was a Neuroscientist. (Get the MP3 of his interview here.)

Lehrer’s basic argument is simple: artists have often anticipated aspects of brain science that bench scientists are only now beginning to understand.

Using similar terms, Publishers Weekly described it thus:

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 Cézanne 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.

But can Proust, or any of the other artists he names, really be considered a neuroscientist? (In other words, should historians of neuroscience include these characters in the disciplinary lineage?) No, said Lehrer in his interview on All in the Mind.

We’ve so emphasized neuroscientific reductionism that the idea of reducing the brain to just its material parts, its most basic material parts, that we’ve forgotten that that view of the brain leaves something out. …we are neglecting the reality we actually experience every day and I think that’s what these artists can reconnect us with.

This is a view of history as a source of inspiration; popular science journalism intended to remind readers with interests in neuroscience of what it is like to have a brain, over and above the firing of C-fibres.

…obviously Virginia Woolf expresses her insights about the mind and Proust his insights about memory in a very different language from science; they are not using acronyms and proteins to describe their ideas.

And yet what I try to do is show how these two very different descriptions of the brain — that they’re both trying to express the same underlying phenomenon which is the human mind/human nature.

The challenge for readers interested in the history of neuroscience as a discipline, however, is manifested in Lehrer’s language. He often strays from artists “representing” mental phenomena — presenting experiences for philosophical investigation — to their art “anticipating” later discoveries about the brain.

Proust very emphatically says it was by taste and smell alone that the memories came back to him. He talked about how he’d seen these cookies in bakeries all across Paris and never recovered the initial childhood memory and yet when he put the crumbs of the cookie in his mouth all of a sudden the memory came rushing back to him. And what struck me was this emphasis on the sentimentality of taste and smell as actually neurologically accurate. If you look at the structure of the brain, the olfactory cortex — where sense of taste and smell are centred — are actually the only sense directly connected to the hippocampus, which is the centre of long term memory. All our other senses go somewhere else first and then go to the hippocampus.

So in a sense Proust was very prescient to talk about how our sense of smell and taste are uniquely nostalgic, uniquely sentimental.

From one perspective, such passages could be interpreted as presentist and celebratory; a lamentation of Proust’s unrecognized place in the disciplinary lineage and a call for his inclusion in all future discussions of “the history of memory.” But that’s misleading.

In the interview, Lehrer clarifies his purpose:

…obviously Proust isn’t going to invent Prozac and he’s not going to help you do your experiments with rats. But all these artists can do is help clarify the way we think about these concepts. They can really help us ask better questions, they are not going to give you the experimental answer but they can improve your questions.

The role of popular history, from Lehrer’s perspective, is to serve as a reminder for bench scientists that there are more truths out there than what can be demonstrated today in the lab.

I don’t think we should draw such a strict line on the one hand between the hard, materialist facts of science and on the other hand the wishy-washy, nebulous truths of an artist. One thing that surprised me about these artists was just how seriously they took their art. They saw their art as a real empirical investigation. They weren’t doing experiments but they were studying their mind in the same way a scientist studies the amygdala of a rat. But there was a rigour there.

While perhaps dubious as History, per se, the book presents a hopeful statement about the doing of what we now call Science.

Lehrer suggests that it is through a connection to our history that we are able to develop truly meaningful scientific statements, just as a connection to science can provide artists with inspiration. Historical narrative is therefore a valuable resource, even if its truths are different.

…if nothing else, this dialogue can give each culture a better sense of what they’re better at, of what they excel at, and can correct the excesses of both cultures at their extreme. I think it’s very tough to imagine what shape a genuine dialogue would take, except I think, you know, it would lead both cultures to ask more precise questions.

In short, Lehrer’s artists cannot properly be claimed to have anticipated later scientific advances. Rather, such popular celebrations serve a different purpose: to inspire “dialogue.”

(If Proust shows up in a future History of neuroscience article at Wikipedia, or as an influence in the History of psychology, it will be as a result of a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the purpose of Lehrer’s project.)



Recommended Reading

  • Clarke, E. & Jacyna, L. S. (1987). Nineteenth-century origins of Neuroscientific Concepts. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Finger, S. (1994). Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations into Brain Function. New York: Oxford University Press.

See also

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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