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.
Examining the Examples
I couldn’t help but quarrel both with some of Lehrer’s choices and with his interpretations of their work. For example, the chef Escoffier is said by Lehrer to have invented making stock by boiling down bones, anticipating the Japanese discovery of umami, the so-called fifth taste. Lehrer recounts Escoffier’s story with such gusto as to whet the reader’s appetite in a more than usually literal sense (his time in restaurant kitchens was clearly not wasted). Yet my facsimile copy of the classic cookbook Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861, a generation before Escoffier, has just such a recipe and reflection on the culinary virtues of stock, and certainly the Japanese knew about stock long before its tasty effect was linked to the presence of the amino acid glutamate. But maybe a dispute about precedence and historical accuracy doesn’t matter to the general argument about the fascinating relationships among cooking, biochemistry, and the experience of taste.
Similarly, the choices of Cézanne for sight and Stravinsky for sound make sense, though equal cases could have been made for Pablo Picasso and Arnold Schoenberg. Individual artists, like individual scientists, write, paint, and research in a social context that helps shape both the problems they set out to resolve and the ways they approach them, so it is not surprising to find similarities among contemporaries.
I have more serious problems over George Eliot. She is an excellent choice as subject, since she is the only one of Lehrer’s exemplars who was seriously interested in science in general and biology in particular. To the scandal of Victorian society, she lived openly with the already married biologist George Lewes. She was fascinated by the implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory (it has been argued that at least one of her novels, Mill on the Floss, is structured as a meditation on evolution). In her greatest novel, Middlemarch, a young country doctor tries to develop a Lodge argues, in a way that would surely appeal to Lehrer, that novelists can still reach deeper into the experience of consciousness than any of us practicing at the laboratory bench. medicine based on current science and innovates by using a stethoscope and microscope. But to locate Eliot as the discoverer of “the biology of freedom” is to ignore that almost all her novels, including Middlemarch (from which Lehrer quotes extensively), are concerned with the lack of freedom for women. He even regards that novel as having a happy ending, ignoring the painful irony of its closing words, in which the frustrated heroine, Dorothea, settles for the best that can be expected for a woman: marriage to a nondescript but handsome artist.
As to the neuroscience of freedom that Eliot is supposed to have anticipated, it is almost comically inadequate to discover that Lehrer locates it in brain plasticity and in the recognition that the long-held belief that we emerge into the world with a full complement of neurons, which steadily die off as we age, is wrong. While it is now clear that even in older adults, neurons are being steadily born in key brain regions, the implications of this important and exciting research finding are still uncertain. Yet I suspect that Eliot would have been as surprised by being linked to adult neurogenesis as Gertrude Stein would be to find herself, as indeed she is, matched by Lehrer with the linguist Noam Chomsky.
Although Lehrer inexplicably misses her passionate feminism, Virginia Woolf is an excellent choice for understanding the self, as her writings, like those of James Joyce, explore her subjects’ interior thoughts rather than their external Indeed, this was a recurrent theme at the beginning of the 20th century, as issues of the self and identity became important—think too of Freud. The writer and critic David Lodge’s 2002 book Consciousness and the Novel explores the way in which, from the purely exterior narrative of 18th-century novels through the great 19th-century writers, authors entered deeper and deeper into their creations’ interior lives. Woolf’s subjects, Mrs. Ramsay and Mrs. Dalloway, exist almost entirely in such an interior world. But I would have paired her with Antonio Damasio, as the neuroscientist who has written most penetratingly about the emergence of different levels of self, rather than Roger Sperry, with his studies of dual consciousness in patients whose corpus callosum was severed, and Christof Koch’s search for the neural correlates of consciousness. It is in response to the current enthusiasm among neuroscientists for such brain theories of consciousness that Lodge argues, in a way that would surely appeal to Lehrer, that novelists can still reach deeper into the experience of consciousness than any of us practicing at the laboratory bench.
Going Beyond Scientific Reductionism
This argument, in fact, is why Proust wasn’t a neuroscientist. With the exception of Eliot, the artists and writers Lehrer All of us need to understand how it is that the brain is embodied, and how we, as owners of both brain and body, are embedded in the surrounding social world. chooses, although fascinated by mind and the senses, were pretty indifferent to the brain processes that might underlie them, whereas it is precisely these brain processes that are the concern of us neuroscientists, however much we may wish to extrapolate our findings to “explain” the mind.
Over and again throughout the book, Lehrer recognizes that understanding the mind requires going beyond reductionism, however powerful a research tool that way of thinking remains. By encouraging neuroscientists to explore the worlds and thoughts of his chosen subjects, Lehrer may thus help to enrich our own research programs, just as the various more conventional art/science projects are supposed to enrich the work of the artists who participate in them. All of us need to understand how it is that the brain is embodied, and how we, as owners of both brain and body, are embedded in the surrounding social world. Writers, artists, and musicians can still tell us things about ourselves that all our genetic wizardry, molecular tricks, probing electrodes, and magnetic brain imaging cannot approach.