Culture

Was Proust a Neuroscientist?

Books on neuroscience used to be relegated to the shelves of medical libraries. But an array of new mainstream books use the tools and principles of this medical specialty, which explores the brain and nervous system, to offer explanations for everything from how we invest ("Your Money and Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich," published by Simon & Schuster) to why we pray ("The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul," published by HarperOne). Perhaps the most original of the brain books, though, is "Proust Was a Neuroscientist." Published recently by Houghton Mifflin, it's a collection of essays that are as much about the arts as medicine. In the book, author Jonah Lehrer describes how novelist Marcel Proust, as well as chef Auguste Escoffier, composer Igor Stravinsky, and writers Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf built upon the scientific knowledge of their time to make discoveries of their own in the field of neuroscience. Proust's understanding of memory, Lehrer argues, even surpassed that of the scientists of his day. NEWSWEEK's Temma Ehrenfeld spoke to Lehrer, an editor-at-large for the science magazine Seed, about the surprising contributions those in the arts have made to our understanding of how the mind works. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What surprised you most while doing the research for this book?
Jonah Lehrer: One thing was how seriously all of these artists took their art. They really believed that their novels and paintings and poetry were expressing deep truths about the human mind. As Virginia Woolf put it, the task of the novelist is to "examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day … [tracing] the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness." In other words, she is telling writers to get the mind right. Everything else is secondary.

So what did Proust divine about humans ahead of neuroscientists?
After he dips the madeleine into the tea and recovers those lost childhood memories [in "In Search of Lost Time"], Proust realizes that our noses bear a unique burden of memory. "It's by smell and taste alone," Proust writes, that we can recover "the vast structure of recollection." Neuroscientists now know that Proust was right, and that our senses of smell and taste, centered in the olfactory cortex, are the only senses that directly connect to the hippocampus, the center of long-term memory. All of our other senses are first routed through the thalamus. Although we like to think of our memory as a repository of inert information, like a hard drive in the mind, our memory is actually always changing. The memory is altered in the absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what happened and more about you. It's ironic but true: to remember something is to misremember it. The best way to accurately recall a memory is to record it as soon as possible, before you've had the chance to remember it too many more times. This is one of Proust's main morals: the act of remembering is a dishonest process.

I was surprised that you didn't include Shakespeare, who is usually considered our most psychologically perceptive English writer.
I could have written an entire book on Shakespeare. To take but one example, there's a quote from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that I've always thought captured a very modern scientific idea, which is that our perceptions are influenced by our linguistic descriptions of the world: "And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet's pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name." I think [the critic] Harold Bloom was right to point out that it's hard to imagine human nature without "Hamlet" or "King Lear" or "The Tempest." Shakespeare's works captured our condition so precisely that, in a sense, we can't help but imitate his characters.

Are there cases in which scientists say they were inspired by the arts or a particular artist?
The history of science is full of examples. [Nobel Prize-winning physicist] Neils Bohr, for example, was a big fan of Cubism and seems to have been influenced by Cubist paintings when he was revamping the classical model of the electron. I think the frontier of the future will consist of artists and scientists working together. If I were a physicist, I'd try collaborating with a poet to see if the standard metaphors of physics—the garden hose of string theory, the big bang of the Big Bang, for example—could be improved. If I were a neuroscientist studying the visual cortex, I'd want to sit down with a painter.

What do you make of the current trend toward combining neuroscience with other disciplines—like "neuroeconomics"? Will this lead to new discoveries?
It's a great trend. So many different fields are founded upon untested theories about the mind. Economics, for example, has been rooted in the assumption of human rationality. Neuroscience allows us to put these theories to the empirical test.

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