Proust Was a Neuroscientist
By Jonah Lehrer
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover, 9780618620104, 256pp.)
Publication Date: November 1, 2007
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In this technology-driven age, it’s tempting to believe that science can solve every mystery. After all, science has cured countless diseases and even sent humans into space. But as Jonah Lehrer argues in this sparkling debut, science is not the only path to knowledge. In fact, when it comes to understanding the brain, art got there first.
Taking a group of artists a painter, a poet, a chef, a composer, and a handful of novelists Lehrer shows how each one discovered an essential truth about the mind that science is only now rediscovering. We learn, for example, how Proust first revealed the fallibility of memory; how George Eliot discovered the brain’s malleability; how the French chef Escoffier discovered umami (the fifth taste); how Cézanne worked out the subtleties of vision; and how Gertrude Stein exposed the deep structure of language a full half-century before the work of Noam Chomsky and other linguists. It’s the ultimate tale of art trumping science.
More broadly, Lehrer shows that there is a cost to reducing everything to atoms and acronyms and genes. Measurement is not the same as understanding, and art knows this better than science does. An ingenious blend of biography, criticism, and first-rate science writing, Proust Was a Neuroscientist urges science and art to listen more closely to each other, for willing minds can combine the best of both, to brilliant effect.
Jonah Lehrer is a Contributing Editor at Wired and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. He writes the Head Case column for The Wall Street Journal and regularly appears on WNYC’s Radiolab. His writing has also appeared in Nature, The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American and Outside. He’s the author of two previous books, Proust Was A Neuroscientist and How We Decide. He graduated from Columbia University and attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.