Posts Tagged ‘Jonah Lehrer’

Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a neuroscientist

December 24, 2007

I finished reading Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a neuroscientist. I enjoyed the book. It consists of eight chapters, a prelude and a coda. Each of the chapters discuss an artist or a non-scientist (mostly) — Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf.

I think the chapter on Escoffier is the best in the book; an excerpt from that chapter is available here (and, Jenny also thinks that it is the best chapter). I had difficulty in making sense of some parts of the chapter on Gertrude Stein; unsurprisingly, Stein chapter was also the least satisfying of all.

There are a couple of themes that run through the book. One is the plasticity of the brain; all that we enjoy in music, in paintings, and in literature are also modified by what we choose to hear, see or read; by changing the nature of the stimuli, the brain can be trained to see mountains and rocks in clumps of paint, and music in noise. The other is that there is a feed back mechanism that operates with almost all of the activities of the brain — be it memory, self-awareness or perception — which, gives an illusion of continuousness to what is essentially a grainy underlying structure.

Some sections of the book read like it is written by Sacks (and, of course, there are references to Sacks’ the man who mistook his wife for a hat, and a couple of others), which is to say that they are extremely well written and are a pleasure to read. There are also some nuggets of information that I did not know about; for example, though I knew about Maxwell’s demon, I did not know about Laplace’s demon. I also enjoyed the description of musical perception as basically one of a search for pattern:

It is this psychological instinct — this desperate neuronal search for pattern, any pattern — that is the source of music.

Though I enjoyed the book, and I do recommend reading it, I have some serious problems with the premise of the book. PAM Dirac is supposed to have made the following remark (or some words to that effect) about the differences between science and arts to Heisenberg, when he saw the later reading a novel:

In science, we describe the complex in terms of the simple. In the arts, it is the other way around.

Such sentiments, expressed privately, might just be the idiosyncratic notions of an individual. However, when books are written expressing similar notions (Lehrer gives two examples — E O Wilson and Steven Pinker), Lehrer thinks that it is time to fight them with a book; and therein lies the weakness of the book. This is not to say that I agree with such sentiments; this is just to say that, if that is the aim of Lehrer’s book, he fails to make a convincing case.

I think, Greta Munger at Congnitive Daily captures this shortcoming rather nicely in her thumbnail review:

Of course art and science are good for different things, but I think Lehrer is trying to write to a group of folks who may have forgotten (or never knew?) that great art offers us important insights into the world. To my mind, Lehrer overemphasizes what some of the artists might have “known,” but my guess is he does this because he is addressing an art-deprived audience. I enjoy learning about the art of Cézanne and Stravinksy, but I am really not convinced that either man gained special insight from their art about the physiological mechanisms behind early vision (edges are important!) and the flexibility of the auditory cortex. I think it’s great to be able to see the art and recognize its appeal might be related to the first analysis of the visual system; I’m just not sure why it has to be true that Cézanne “knew” that edges were critical to the mechanism.

Without some of the sentences in his prelude, like this one for example,

This book is about artists who anticipated the discoveries of neuroscience. … Their imaginations foretold the facts of the future.

and, several in his coda, like this one, for example,

We now know enough to know that we will never know everything. That is why we need art; it teaches us how to live with mystery.

I think I would have enjoyed the book more. In fact, if Lehrer just took the view point of examining these artists and their creations with the hindsight of what we know about the underlying neuroscience today, it would have made the book less inhomogeneous and more enjoyable. It is all those pretensions about creating a fourth culture (which would be truthful to the original “third culture” ideas of C P Snow) that fail the book.