Proust Was a Neuroscientist

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2008

Proust Was a Neuroscientist is the story of how eight writers and artists anticipated our contemporary understanding of the human brain. From the preface:

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

I enjoyed the book quite a bit so I sent the author, Jonah Lehrer, a few questions via email. Here?s our brief conversation.

Jason Kottke: Your exploration of the intersection of neuroscience and culture begins with Proust; you were reading Swann?s Way while doing research in a neuroscience lab. Where did the idea come from for a collection of people who anticipated our modern understanding of the human brain? How did you find those other stories?

Jonah Lehrer: The lab I was working in 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.

I?m always a little embarrassed to admit just how idiosyncratic my selection process was for the other artists in the book. I simply began with my favorite artists and tried to see what they had to say about the mind. The first thing that surprised me was just how much they had to say. Virginia Woolf, for instance, is always going on and on about her brain. ?Nerves? has to be one of her favorite words.

Kottke: Which of your characters did you know the least about beforehand? Even a seeming polymath like yourself must have a blind spot or two.

Lehrer: Definitely Gertrude Stein. I actually found her through William James, the great American psychologist and philosopher. She worked in his Harvard 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. So I knew she had this deep background in science, but I had only read snippets of her work. I then proceeded to fall asleep to the same page of ?The Making of Americans? for a month.

Kottke: Are there other characters that you considered for inclusion? If so, why weren?t they included?

Lehrer: Lots of people were left on the cutting room floor. I had a long digression on Edgar Allen Poe and mirror neurons. (See, for instance, ?The Purloined Letter,? where Poe has detective Dupin reveal his secret for reading the minds of criminals: ?When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.?) I also had a chapter on Coleridge and the unconscious, but I think that chapter was really just me wanting to write about opium. But, for the most part, I can?t really say why some chapters survived the editing process and others didn?t. I certainly mean no disrespect to Poe. If they let me write a sequel, I?ll find a way to include him.

Kottke: I noticed that three out of the eight main characters in the book are women. Surveying the usually cited big thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, it would have been easy to write this book with all male characters. Is there an implicit statement in there that science would be better off with a greater percentage of women participating?

Lehrer: While I certainly agree with the idea that the institution of science would benefit from more female scientists, I didn?t choose these female artists for that reason. I don?t think you need any ulterior motive to fall in love with the work of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. Their art speaks for itself. That said, I think the psychological insights of women like Woolf were rooted, at least in part, in their womanhood. Woolf, for instance, rebelled against the stodgy old male novelists of her day. Their fiction, she complained, was all about ?factories and utopias?. Woolf wanted to invert this hierarchy, so that the ?task of the novelist? was to ?examine an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.? There?s something very domestic about her modernism, so that the grandest epiphanies happen while someone is out buying flowers or eating a beef stew. Women might not be able to write novels about war or politics, but they could find an equal majesty by exploring the mind.

Plus, I think Woolf learned a lot about the brain from her mental illness. As a woman, she was subjected to all sorts of terrible psychiatric treatments, which made her rather skeptical of doctors. (In Mrs. Dalloway, she refers to the paternalistic Dr. Bradshaw as an ?obscurely evil? person, whose insistence that the mental illness was ?physical, purely physical? causes a suicide.) Introspection was Woolf?s only medicine. ?I feel my brains, like a pear, to see if it?s ripe,? she once wrote. ?It will be exquisite by September.?

Kottke: Are there other books/media out there that share a third culture kinship with yours? I received a copy of Lawrence Weschler?s Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences for Christmas?that seems to fit. Steven Johnson?s books. Anything else you can recommend?

Lehrer: I?ve stolen ideas from so many people it?s hard to know where to begin. Certainly Weschler and Johnson have both been major influences. I?ve always worshipped Oliver Sacks; Richard Powers has more neuroscience in his novels than most issues of Nature; I just saw Olafur Eliasson?s new show at SFMOMA and that was rather inspiring. I could go on and on. It?s really an exciting time to be interested in the intersection of art and science.

But I?d also recommend traveling back in time a little bit, before our two cultures were so divided. We don?t think of people like George Eliot as third-culture figures, but she 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.) Or look at 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?. In other words, trying to merge art and science isn?t some newfangled idea.


Thanks, Jonah. You can read more of Lehrer?s writing at his frequently updated blog, The Frontal Cortex.