When C.P. Snow famously wrote in The Two Cultures that the humanities and sciences suffer from a communication divide–as if languages of two different species–he may have imagined someone like Jonah Lehrer as the sort of translator capable of spanning the chasm.
His first book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist, stands credibly in the culture gap that Snow described, but it also goes well beyond it with a dimension of insight that a mere reductionist attempt could never offer. As such, it has quickly assumed a place among genuine interdisciplinary works, worthy of Oliver Sacks’ praise as “a special pleasure.”
Amidst balancing roles as editor at large for Seed magazine, writing for Scientific American Mind, The Boston Globe and several other publications (and for his blog, The Frontal Cortex) Jonah Lehrer spent some time with Neuronarrative to discuss Proust Was A Neuroscientist and his next project.
What were your motivations for writing a book that crosses the chasm between science and art (and even more particularly, neuroscience and art)?
The book was really a by-product of indecision. I’d always loved literature and science and found myself increasingly torn when it came to choosing an undergraduate major. The brain was such an endlessly fascinating organ, but what about my favorite novels? Could I really choose between Jane Austen and kinase enzymes? So that’s when I started thinking about ways to fuse these two interests. I wrote several terrible short stories stuffed full of synaptic acronyms.
The particular epiphany that led to the book occurred in a lab. At the time, I was working in a lab that was studying the chemistry of memory. The manual labor of science can get pretty tedious, and so I started reading Proust while waiting for my experiments to finish. After a few hundred pages of melodrama, I began to realize that the novelist had these very modern ideas about how our memory worked. His fiction, in other words, anticipated the very facts I was trying to uncover by studying the isolated neurons of sea slugs.
Once I had this idea about looking at art through the prism of science, I began to see connections everywhere. I’d mutter about the visual cortex while looking at a Cezanne painting, or think about the somatosensory areas while reading Whitman on the “body electric”. Needless to say, my labmates mocked me mercilessly.
You mention that one of the most important influences on all of the artists in the book was the science of their time (such as Whitman studying brain textbooks and Elliot reading Darwin). What do you think compelled these artists to delve into science, and do you see that energy continuing in more modern artists?
I think these artists delved into science for the same reason anyone delves into science: they wanted to learn about reality. They saw their art as means of investigation, a way of understanding their mind and how it worked. George Eliot famously described her novels as a “a set of experiments in life.” Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, said that in her new novel the “psychology should be done very realistically.” Whitman worked in Civil War hospitals and corresponded for years with the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. (He also kept up with phrenology, the brain science of his day.) Gertrude Stein worked in William James’ lab, published a few scientific papers on “automatic writing,” and then went to med-school at Johns Hopkins before dropping out and moving to Paris to hang out with Picasso.
Nowadays, we imagine this very neat dichotomy between art and science, but such a cultural chasm would not have made sense to any of these artists. I always love the story of the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When the poet was asked why he attended so many lectures on chemistry, he gave a great answer: “To improve my stock of metaphors”.
You say that Proust, the namesake artist of the book, was “searching for the hidden space when time stops.” What did Proust hit upon in his search that was powerful enough to make his words still strongly resonate with us today?
Take the famous Madeleine episode, where Proust dips his cookie into some tea and suddenly remembers the “exquisite pleasures” of his childhood. In the novel, Proust is very clear that smell and taste bear a unique burden of memory. “When from a long distance past nothing subsists,” Proust writes, “taste and smell alone…remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering.” In other words, our sense of smell is uniquely sentimental.
At the time, scientists had no idea that Proust was telling the truth. They didn’t yet realize that the olfactory cortex is the only sense that connects directly to the hippocampus, a center of long-term memory. A few years ago, Rachel Herz, a psychologist at Brown, showed – in a witty paper entitled “Testing the Proustian Hypothesis” – that Proust intuited some aspects of our cortical anatomy.
But this isn’t the only thing Proust discovered about memory. In fact, his novels also outline some very recent (and profound) discoveries of modern neuroscience, such as the fact that we are constantly reconsolidating our memories, revising our sense of the past in light of the present. At the very least, we should make Proust an honorary neuroscientist.
You quote from Virginia Woolf’s journal from 1922 where she says, “At the age of 40, I am beginning to learn the mechanism of my own brain.” She seemed self aware of the dynamics of her mental illness, and yet her life ended tragically in suicide. What can we learn from her experience?
Her diaries are an incredibly poignant portrait of mental illness. It can sometimes be tempting to equate madness with genius, but I think Woolf’s experience shows that madness can actually interfere with the creative process. When she was ill, she couldn’t write. She was forced to lie in bed and wait for the “whirring of wings in the brain” to stop. That said, her illness did force her to become incredibly introspective. “My own psychology interests me,” she confessed to her journal. “I intend to keep full notes of my ups and downs for my private information. And thus objectified, the pain and shame become at once much less.” In this sense, her modernist fiction, her attempt to capture the mind on the page, was a coping mechanism. But it wasn’t enough.
I distinctly recall finishing E. O. Wilson’s book Consilience years ago and feeling infuriated about his argument that reductionist science can “correct” the unempirical humanities. You mention his argument in the final chapter and say, “Wilson‘s ideology is technically true, but in the end rather meaningless.” Explain why you think so.
I was referring to the E. O. Wilson line where he talks about how “the workings of social institutions are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.” That’s a perfectly reasonable and utterly ridiculous sentence. Of course, human consciousness (and thus human culture) is ultimately a side-effect of jiggling atoms and quantum mechanics. To believe in science is to believe in materialism all the way down. But I think that sentence also reveals the silliness of the uber-reductionist framework.
Take the human brain. I’d argue that something is lost when human experience is seen as nothing but the electrical interactions of a 100 billion neurons. What science sometimes forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) Think of it this way: it’s quite possible to take a soaring Mozart symphony and reduce it into a series of physical soundwaves. That’s a nifty exercise, and you might even come up with some elegant physics equation that summarizes the sound of Mozart. But what happened to the music? The intangible beauty, the visceral emotion, the entire reason we listen in the first place — all is lost when the sound is reduced into its most elemental details. In other words, reductionism can leave out a lot of reality.
What’s next on your horizon?
My second book, How We Decide, comes out in February. It’s about the neuroscience of decision-making. It’s a bit more practical than Proust Was A Neuroscientist: I spent less time in the library reading Gertrude Stein and more time hanging out with professional poker players in Vegas and debt counselors in the Bronx. The book grew out of my desire to answer a very simple question: what is happening inside my brain when I stand in the cereal aisle of the supermarket, struggling to choose between honey nut and apple cinnamon cheerios? (As I noted above, I’m chronically indecisive.) I wanted to see if modern neuroscience could help me navigate the choices of everyday life. What can dopamine neurons teach us about slot machines? What does the prefrontal cortex have to do with airline pilots? Why do people use credit cards? How should an NFL quarterback make decisions in the pocket? And so on.