Was Proust a neuroscientist?

Recently there as been a spike in number of popular books on the brain and a lot them have made it to the best seller list. Everybody wants know how the body's CPU works. The most ambitious of these projects has been the one by Jonah Lehrer, editor-at-large for SEED magazine, a Rhodes scholar and neuroscience blogger.

His basic premise about neuroscience is: Sub sole nihil novi est. (meaning, There's nothing new under the sun. It's remarkable how intelligent everything sounds when you quote in Latin, or talk in a BBC accent). Lehrer claims that artists and writers were incredibly prescient and had long discovered basic neuroscientific truths. He ascribes each of the following artists with different discoveries in neuroscience: Proust (memory and recollection), Woolf (mental states), Escoffier (taste and smell), George Eliot (neurogenesis), Whitman (unity of body and soul/mind), Gertrude Stein (internal grammar/syntax), and Stravinsky (neural plasticity). All modern science is currently doing is simply rigorously verifying their discoveries by rigorous testing, or re-discovering it.

Jonah Lehrer writes beautifully and the anecdotes of the giants of the arts are interesting to read. There are no new facts and the juicy anecdotes will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the particular artist (available cheap and free on Wikipedia). For example, the background on Stravinsky's premiere of The Rite of Spring was identical to the one I read in Alex Ross's excellent book on music in the 21st century, The Rest is Noise. I guess it is hard to come up with unique historical quotable quotes.

Where Lehrer's really contributes is in highlighting interesting experiments in neuroscience and explaining them. There is a great deal of misinformation and school textbooks have not been updated for decades. Why was Einstein smart? People believe that we use only 5% or 10% of our brains, and that Einstein used 20%, or some such figure. This is utter nonsense. But, someone has to inform the people and science is not always easy to explain and is not sexy. To complicate matters further, science is always forging ahead, not really waiting for things to be digested. The perverse nature of science overturns conventional wisdom and even central dogmas of science to create the 'latest' science.

Experiments have overturned what many believed to be true for a long time - "We all start with a set of neurons and they all die. No new neurons are created". This has been proven to be false. There is a great deal of life in the brain. Such experiments are fascinating to read and this book performs a great service in taking neuroscience to a broader audience.

The spectacular failure of the book is in putting the its title claim together. It's easy to find correlations if you look hard enough and the ones that Lehrer seems to suggest are rather tenuous and require a tremendous leap of faith. To reverse engineer Monsieur Proust and Ms. Stein as neuroscientists is more poetic license than science. The cover notes that Leher worked in Nobel prize-winning Eric Kandel's lab, but it is disappointing to report that he missed the essential lesson of the scientific method - framing a good hypothesis and then collecting data to confirm or disprove it. It is rather plain, even to a non-neuroscientist reader, that his hypothesis is weak and his conclusions are based on rather weak correlations.

This would all have still been okay, but then Lehrer goes on to commit parricide. Drawing from C.P Snow's Two Cultures theory, scientists like Dawkins, Pinker and Gould formed the 'Third Culture', scientists who bridged the gap between science and the lay audience with their cogent writing. Lehrer faults them, however, for viewing everything from the lens of science and missing the arts and humanities completely. What is needed, is a new'Fourth Culture', one that combines the arts and sciences and brings them both to the lay audience. This book and Saturday by Ian McEwan are examples of such writing, Lehrer goes on to write in his Coda to the book. Anyone who has read Dawkins, Gould or Pinker would suggest to Lehrer that he first work on coming up with a decent thesis for books before trying to create a new genre of writing. Clearly, Mr. Lehrer does not believe in half-measures when it comes to being audacious. He's young, the severe panning won't kill him and hopefully make him stronger.

On the Two Cultures, I think
put it beautifully:

Science is material for the arts and art is material for the sciences, yet each must maintain its own integrity. After all, each has its own virtue: The sciences lift us outside of experience, so that we can more clearly survey it. The arts immerse us in experience, so that we can more fully encounter it.

My perception while reading the book was that I was reading two separate books at the same time. One on art, and the other on science. Take any random set of artists and you could come up with essentially an identical book. Maybe this book is a grand joke on everybody; if not, it's ripe for parody.

A few selections:
Genghis Khan was a cell-biologist, or
Napoleon was an investment banker,

There are others, which I will get to once I, like Monsieur Proust, am in bed.


Ashutosh said...

Nice review. I haven't read the book and in fact missed it because of some other engagement when it was discussed at our book club. But even after reading the reviews, I wondered whether Lehrer is confusing correlation with causation. There are innumerable 18th and 19th century armchair philosophers whose "predictions" you find to be true later. But this was just philosophy and not true prediction based on scientific hypotheses.
Also check out the review of the book in Science. Apparently there are some pretty bad scientific inaccuracies, such as the assertion that amino acids make up the units of DNA!

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Abhishek said...

"It's remarkable how intelligent everything sounds when you quote in Latin, "

The words you are looking for are "omnia dicta fortiora si dicta latina" ;)

Hirak said...

Si, Signore!
That's beautiful.