Proust was a neuroscientist? No, despite Jonah Lehrer’s provocative title, the novelist Marcel Proust was not.
Proust’s seven-volume novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (English translations are titled either Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time), published between 1913 and 1927, is a profound meditation on the nature of emotional and sensual memory and the complex interpersonal relationships of a decadent aristocracy and a rising bourgeoisie. Researchers studying memory will almost certainly be aware of the famous passage, early on in the first volume, where the taste of a madeleine cake evokes in Proust’s semi-autobiographical narrator an entire ensemble of childhood memories, as it is one of the few references to the work of a novelist to find its way regularly into neuroscience textbooks. But while Proust was profoundly introspective and focused on his own thoughts and feelings, his concern with the bodily mechanisms that underlay them was almost certainly confined to medical consultations about his perennially poor health.
Lehrer’s title thus reflects both the ambitious goals of his book and their limitations. His thesis, presented in a series of eight case studies, is that through the 19th and early 20th centuries, writers, painters, musicians, and even cooks achieved insights into the mind that both contradicted the assumptions of the sciences of their time and anticipated some of the understanding of the brain that modern neuroscience offers. It’s a fun and thought-provoking argument, even though I feel that at times his case remains at best non-proven.
Did Artists Anticipate Modern Brain Science?
It has become increasingly fashionable to explore the links between art and science. I myself have had the privilege of being “shadowed” in the laboratory and at conferences for a year by a novelist who used the experience in her story of a neuroscientist who was researching Alzheimer’s disease as he confronted his own past as a Holocaust survivor. In the A brash 25-year-old such as Lehrer often dares to tread where older and more cautious people might not, and in doing so he may provide left-field insights that others have missed. main, such projects all have a similar intent: to expose artists, novelists, and musicians to modern sciences ranging from cosmology to molecular biology, and by so doing to stimulate their creative juices. The process may be enjoyable for the scientists involved, but it is not normally supposed to affect their research programs.
In arguing that art anticipates science, Lehrer—a writer and editor who has served his time as a technician in Eric Kandel’s memory research laboratory and in the kitchens of distinguished restaurants—takes the opposite approach. Proust Was a Neuroscientist focuses on Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cézanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf. Each artist is supposed to exemplify a change in how we think about mind and emotion. In Lehrer’s account, these insights are the biology of, respectively, feeling, freedom, taste, memory, sight, sound, language, and the self. Lehrer’s choice of subjects is eclectic and fascinating, and the brief biographies and summaries of their work that he provides are enticing samplers for newcomers. The work of each artist is given a counterweight in terms of a relevant aspect of modern neuroscience. Thus his account of Proust is followed by a review of research in the Kandel lab (in some of which Lehrer participated) on the molecular mechanisms involved in memory formation and the ways in which memories can be reactivated by appropriate stimuli.
The challenges of Lehrer’s exercise should be immediately apparent. His accounts of the intellectual breakthroughs made by his chosen authors and artists risk trespassing on the oft-ploughed fields of generations of literary critics and historians of science. At the same time, they may raise the ire of neuroscientists who feel that he has simplified their findings to suit his thesis. But a brash 25-year-old such as Lehrer often dares to tread where older and more cautious people might not, and in doing so he may provide left-field insights that others have missed. So even if Lehrer’s art-science linkages sometimes seem stretched to breaking point, the attempt to make them is itself thought-provoking.