Lehrer: Proust Was a Neuroscientist

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Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Boston : Mariner Book/Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008. x + 242 pages; illustrated.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer is a slim volume whose title promised readerly appeal. And I’m happy to say I can recommend it without reservation! According to his "Acknowledgments" while Lehrer isn’t a neuroscientist himself, he did work in a neurosurgery lab for several years and obviously loves science. While reading the book, I kept thinking "Renaissance Man" to myself; Lehrer wants to explore how art and science can complement each other, or as he puts it:

This book is about artists who anticipated the discovery of neuroscience. It is about writers and painters and composers who discovered truths about the mind--real, tangible truths--that science is only now rediscovering. Their imaginations foretold the facts of the future.

I think he does so wonderfully.

That isn’t to say that Lehrer makes a case that the various artists' profiled literally created scientific theories that could have been published in journals. He argues that they found intuitive truths in their art regarding the human brain that science is now discovering for itself. I love this passage, also from the prelude. It’s long but worth it:

Unfortunately, our current culture subscribes to a very narrow definition of truth. If something can’t be quantified and calculated, then it can’t be true. Because this strict scientific approach has explained so much, we assume that it can explain everything. But every method, even the experimental method, has limits. Take the human mind. Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details; they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness. The moral of this book is that we are made of art and science. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we also just stuff.

Along with the prelude and coda, which discuss the importance of artists and scientists cooperating, the book is made of of eight essays. Each one is about twenty to thirty pages long, and combines biography with a critical look at the artist’s work with a summary of a certain neuroscience discovery, and weaves it altogether in impeccable prose. As a non-scientist, I found Lehrer’s science writing understandable as well as interesting. And there are short, interesting footnotes throughout. (I love footnotes!) I’m in awe of Lehrer’s accomplishments, quite frankly. The eight artists profiled are Walt Whitman, George Eliot, August Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf. Lehrer is thus equally at home in literature, cooking, art, music, and science. Colour me green with envy already!

This is really a gem of a book, and one I’d recommend to anyone interested in the human experience. I just hope Lehrer writes more in the future!

Notable Passages

But Laplace didn’t limit himself to the trajectory of Jupiter or the rotation of Venus. In his book Essai sur les Probabilities, Laplace attempted to apply the probability theory he had invented for astronomy to a wide range of other uncertainties. He wanted to show that the humanities could be "rationalized," their ignorance resolved by the dispassionate logic of math. After all, the principles underlying celestial mechanics were no different than those underlying social mechanics. Just as an astronomer is able to predict the future movement of a planet, Laplace believed that before long humanity would be able to reliably predict its own behavior. It was all just a matter of computing the data. He called this brave new science "social physics."

The genius of the scientific method, however, is that it accepts no permanent solution. Skepticism is its solvent, for every theory is imperfect. Scientific facts are meaningful precisely because they are ephemeral, because a new observation, a more honest observation, can always alter them.

Even identical twins with identical DNA have strikingly dissimilar brains. When sets of twins perform the same task in a functional MRI machine, different parts of each cortex become activated. If adult twin brains are dissected, the details of their cerebral cells are entirely unique. As Eliot wrote in the preface to Middlemarch, "the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than anyone would imagine."

The story of umami begins at about the same time Escoffier invented Tournedos Rossini, a filet mignon served with foie gras and sauced with a reduced veal stock and a scattering of black truffles. The year was 1907, and Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda asked himself a simple question: What does dashi taste like? Dashi is a classic Japanese broth made from kombu, a dried form of kelp. Since at least A.D. 797, dashi has been used in Japanese cooking the same way Escoffier used stock, as a universal solvent, a base for every dish. But to Ikeda, the dashi his wife cooked for him every night didn’t taste like any of the four classic tastes or even like some unique combination of them. It was simply delicious. Or, as the Japanese would say, it was umami. And so Ikeda began his quixotic quest for this unknown taste.

Since many odors differ only in their molecular details--and we long ago traded away nasal acuity for better color vision--the brain is often forced to decipher smells based upon non-olfactory information. Parmesan cheese and vomit, for example, are both full of butyric acid, which has a pungent top note and a sweetish linger. As a result, blindfolded subjects in experiments will often confuse the two stimuli. In real life, however, such sensory mistakes are extremely rare. Common sense overrules our actual senses.

Long after our other senses have settled down, our senses of taste and smell remain in total neural flux. Nature designed us this way: the olfactory bulb is full of new neurons. Fresh cells are constantly born, and the survival of these cells depends upon their activity. Only cells that respond to the smells and tastes we are actually exposed to survive. Everything else withers away. The end result is that our brains begin to reflect what we eat.

Neuroscience now knows that Proust was right. Rachel Herz, a psychologist at Brown, has shown--in a science paper wittily entitled "Testing the Proustian Hypothesis"--that our senses of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental. This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory. Their mark is indelible. All our other senses (sight, touch, and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source of language and the front door to consciousness. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past.

It shows us that every time we remember anything, the neuronal structure of the memory is delicately transformed, a process called reconsolidation. …The memory is altered in he absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what you remember and more about you. So the purely objective memory, the one "true" to the original taste of the madeleine, is the one memory you will never know.

Cézanne abstracted nature because he realized that everything we see is an abstraction. Before we can make sense of our sensations, we have to impress our illusions upon them.

Hair cells [in the cochlea of the ear] are arranged like the keys on a piano. On one end, they are tuned to respond to high-frequency sounds, while at the other end they are bent by the throb of low frequency. When a scale is played, the hair cells mirror the escalating notes. They sway in time with the music, deftly translating the energy of noise into a spatial code of electricity.

But before a pattern can be desired by the brain, that pattern must play hard to get. Music only excites us when it makes the auditory cortex struggle to uncover its order. If the music is too obvious, if its patterns are always present, it is annoyingly boring. This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the great the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound.

-- Notes by EVA

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