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Proust Was a Neuroscientist Hardcover – Nov 1 2007

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (Nov. 1 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618620109
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618620104
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.6 x 21 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 318 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #524,175 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

With impressively clear prose, Lehrer explores the oft-overlooked places in literary history where novelists, poets and the occasional cookbook writer predicted scientific breakthroughs with their artistic insights. The 25-year-old Columbia graduate draws from his diverse background in lab work, science writing and fine cuisine to explain how Cézanne anticipated breakthroughs in the understanding of human sight, how Walt Whitman intuited the biological basis of thoughts and, in the title essay, how Proust penetrated the mysteries of memory by immersing himself in childhood recollections. Lehrer's writing peaks in the essay about Auguste Escoffier, the chef who essentially invented modern French cooking. The author's obvious zeal for the subject of food preparation leads him into enjoyable discussions of the creation of MSG and the decidedly unappetizing history of 18th- and 19th-century culinary arts. Occasionally, the science prose risks becoming exceedingly dry (as in the enthusiastic section detailing the work of Lehrer's former employer, neuroscientist Kausik Si), but the hard science is usually tempered by Lehrer's deft way with anecdote and example. Most importantly, this collection comes close to exemplifying Lehrer's stated goal of creating a unified third culture in which science and literature can co-exist as peaceful, complementary equals. 21 b&w illus. (Nov.)
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"Jonah Lehrer provides a fresh and unique look at eight of the artists who define modern culture." --Billy Collins, former poet laureate

“In this book, Jonah Lehrer shows us brilliantly that the process of cooking is more than chemistry." --Jacques Pepin

“In this intriguing reflection . . . both art and science are freshly conceived.” --Howard Gardner

"Lehrer puts current neuroscience to a fine use -- ancestor worship -- and in the process gives us a delightful, thoughtful read.” --Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes' Error

"Brilliantly illustrated . . . amazing . . . [Jonah Lehrer's] clear and vivid writing--incisive and thoughtful, yet sensitive and modest--is a special pleasure." --Oliver Sacks

"Writing with effortless brilliance and astonishing clarity, Jonah Lehrer gives us . . . a beautiful book: I was enthralled by it." --Robert D. Richardson, author of William James (winner of the Bancroft Prize) and Emerson

"Jonah Lehrer in Proust was a Neuroscientist, brilliantly, playfully, and precociously shows how artistic perception often anticipates scientific discovery." --Michael Collier

"This is a delightful little book . . . fun to read and thought provoking." --Joseph LeDoux, New York University, author of The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self

"Comes close to exemplifying . . . a unified “third culture” in which science and literature can co-exist as peaceful, complementary equals." Publishers Weekly

"Pleasingly fluent . . . [introduces] art to scientists and science to artists. Solid science journalism with an essayist's flair." Kirkus Reviews

"Entertaining and enlightening." New York Magazine

"Precocious and engaging . . . Lehrer is smart, and there are some fun moments in these pages." --D. T. Max The New York Times Book Review

"His book marks the arrival of an important new thinker . . . wise and fresh." --Jesse Cohen The Los Angeles Times

"Lehrer writes skillfully and coherently about both art and science." --Gregory Kirschling Entertainment Weekly

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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By D. C. Reid on Dec 23 2008
Format: Paperback
This excellent book does two things exceptionally well. It presents 2008 brain science, and marries it seamlessly with art. It has a chapter on Proust - the memory one - about his tome: In Search of Lost Time, coming to the startling conclusion that the more we remember something, the less the memory is real. The book is not a book about Proust, per se, but, has chapters on different artists, for example: Walt Whitman - I Sing the Body Electric - literally; George Eliot, and the biology of chaos theory, and how this presents the ability for us to will our way to new brain cells; Cezanne and his understanding that brains take visual perceptions and impose upon them the need to recognize form, and this results in another unsettling truth: we see what we want to see; and, Auguste Escoffier, the French chef who discovered that glutamate - yes, really, MSG - from rendered animals and plants, is the key to all of smell.Read more ›
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By E. Hass on Aug. 25 2009
Format: Paperback
"Proust was a Neuroscientist" was recommended to me after I went on a long and well-worn sceptical rant concerning positivism, and the idea that ultimate and perfect knowledge is attainable, with the trusty help of the scientific method.

Lehrer demonstrates the way in which eight artists, from Walt Whitman to George Eliot to Marcel Proust, challenged the scientific status quo before or around the time that it was scientifically overturned. The "xenocysts" of science: problems that are ignored such as phantom limb symptoms, the complex nature of language, the dazzling complexity of the brain (not to mention the problematic mind/brain distinction), as well as the chaotic and incomprehensible nature of matter on the microscopic and macroscopic level are all limitations that challenge the tyranny of "Science Ltd."-- the institution, not the discipline itself-- in defining our conception of what counts as both knowledge and reality.

Lehrer depicts a pattern in this trend between the arts and science, demonstrating that in the wake of emerging new ideas, the consciousness that emerges often affirms the artistic values of freedom, will, possibility, creativity, imagination, chaos, playfulness and above all, meaning-making, while overturning ideas of genetic predestination, all forms of rational and biological determinism, the "knowledge/information" model of DNA and memory, and the general scientific definition of humans as the rational animal.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ardi Ghorashy on Feb. 12 2010
Format: Paperback
I saw Jonah speak at the NeuroLeadership Summit 2008 in NYC and found him a very fascinating and engaging person. As a neuroscientist who worked with the Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel, Jonah brings a fascinating fusion of art and science explaining the workings of our brain. His meanderings through the kitchens of Escoffier, Cezanne's paintings, Proust's prose and Whitman's poetry is so engaging, you can miss your train stop being carried away in state of "flow."
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I attended a presentation by Jonah Lehrer and he is so interesting that I decided to buy a few of his books. This is not a book you start when you are tired. You need to be fully awake when reading this. It is dense stuff, and I love it.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 89 reviews
471 of 548 people found the following review helpful
No, he wasn't. Jan. 23 2008
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
When I first heard of this book, I was intrigued by the title. I just recently finished Proust's In Search of Lost Time and I've spent a good part of my career in Neuroscience. So I laughed when I saw the madeleine, the initiator of Marcel's journey of memory, on the cover. But I'm sorry to report that this is a most irritating book. Mr. Lehrer sets up his premise that these eight great artists somehow presaged later discoveries of neuroscience and then bends over backwards to prove it. Each artist/novelist/cook is subjected to egregious cherry-picking of quotes and concepts to align their work with his shallow understanding of neuro-scientific discoveries (his scientific credentials are that he worked in a neuroscience lab as a technician). He covers a lot of ground but it is at a desperate, grad-student level of scholarship. This is confirmed in his acknowledgement section where he admits to having spent a lot of time in the library - probably reading other authors' analyses of these artists. Too bad he didn't study them himself. The book is at its best when he is simply reviewing the contributions made by these giants. Their works are described enthusiastically though not thoroughly. It's like examining the Sistine Chapel with a flashlight - he misses the big picture. But when he reduces the artist's entire body of work down to fit his argument that they somehow anticipated how the brain functions, things really fall apart. Concerning the ones I know well (Proust, Cezanne, Stravinsky, and Woolf), I was startled by how idiotic his extrapolations are. No, Proust was not a neuroscientist. He was a brilliant writer who described the human condition and human behavior like no other. It's insulting to reduce his literary adventure of memory to a discussion of dendritic prions. Had he read the scene from 'Time Regained' where Marcel waits in the library, he'd know that. It is the best statement of Proust's understanding of the power of memory - and it's not mentioned in this book. The 'analysis' in this book is agenda-driven musings of a 25-year-old blogger. After eight chapters of this intellectual alchemy, his conclusion describes the artistic and scientific cultures as dysfunctional children who need to appreciate one another better ("Every humanist should read Nature." What?!) Art and Science are both important tools for exploring our world and ourselves. All human beings have the option to learn, appreciate, and participate in both. They are complementary, not mutually exclusive. But they are best appreciated within their own domain - and not force-fit into the other.
61 of 74 people found the following review helpful
Lehrer's novel was only half right. Oct. 20 2008
By Jared Ivey - Published on
Format: Paperback
Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer attempts to reveal ideas from artists about the mind that neuroscience is recently discovering as true. Lehrer explains both the artistic and scientific concepts in such a way that anyone could understand. This novel is not a hardcore lesson in neuroscience or art but instead a decent blend of both fields.

The different chapters look at a poet, four novelists, a chef, a painter, and a composer. The chapters each follow similar patterns. Lehrer initially prepares us for each artist with a brief biography at the beginning. He then delves into certain works and exposes the neurological insights of the artists. Once we understand the artist's view on the mind, Lehrer shifts from art to science to show discoveries in neuroscience that pertain to the artist's ideas. Finally, Lehrer attempts to draw similarities between what the artist believed and what neuroscience has discovered.

The book first examines the poet Walt Whitman, who saw the mind and body as inseparable. George Eliot, the novelist who believed human freedom arose from our mind's malleability, comes next. The French chef Auguste Escoffier did wonders for the culinary arts with his ideas on the plasticity of taste, the power of suggestion, and the importance of our sense of smell in tasting food. Marcel Proust uncovered the role of smell and taste in our memories as well as the memory's fallibility. Paul Cezanne used his paintings to show that our perception plays a huge role in what and how we see the world around us. The composer Igor Stravinsky revealed that we can only begin to feel music when "the pattern we imagine starts to break down" (Lehrer 132). Gertrude Stein demonstrated that language did not necessarily have to make sense so long as the structure of the grammar remained intact. Lehrer finishes the novel with a chapter about Virginia Woolf, who dug deep into herself in an attempt to discover the source of our "self."

Walt Whitman
"This is the moral of Whitman's poetic sprawl: the human being is an irreducible whole" (Lehrer 5). Before and during Whitman's time, the common belief was that the body and spirit were two separate entities. Lehrer supplements Whitman's idea that our feelings are due to interactions between the mind and body by citing the work of Antonio Damasio. Damasio used four decks of cards where two decks contained big payouts and even bigger punishments and the other two decks had smaller payouts and very few punishments. He tested the electrical conductance of a test subject's palms and found that the subject's hand would get "nervous" just reaching toward the negative decks, long before the subject's mind understood.

George Eliot
I could not quite understand what Lehrer was getting at with this chapter. He mentions Eliot's idea that our ability to change ourselves gives us an innate freedom and then goes into details about neurogenesis and the fact that DNA does not determine our brains; however, the topics do not seem to really blend well. Steps following protein transcription from RNA involve plenty of changes that DNA does not determine, and the environment around any organism plays a huge role in how it behaves. I just could not find the connection between freedoms built into us with the neuroscience Lehrer chose to include.

Auguste Escoffier
Lehrer redeemed himself with this chapter. Escoffier's discovery of umami before it was scientifically investigated as well as his understanding of smell's involvement in taste and the power of suggestion made this chapter much more interesting to read than the previous Eliot chapter. Two studies, one on cheap red wine and the other on white wine with red food coloring, revealed what had to be an embarrassing truth about the power of suggestion to a decent number of wine experts.

Marcel Proust
Proust's thoughts on the memory meshed well with the discoveries in neuroscience. His verbose recollection of eating a madeleine and the memories that sprang from it match perfectly with the smell and taste "connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain's long-term memory" (Lehrer 80). The fallibility of memory that Proust realized is another intriguing aspect of neuroscience, the idea that we can "remember" something without actually experiencing it or the notion that "we have to misremember something in order to remember it" (Lehrer 89).

Paul Cezanne
"Cezanne's epiphany was that our impressions require interpretation; to look is to create what you see" (Lehrer 97). Perception is such a huge part of our senses; Cezanne used his paintings to show us that we can use our minds to complete the picture. Lehrer's inclusion of two of Cezanne's paintings helped to supplement this idea. "His art shows us what we cannot see, which is how we see" (Lehrer 104). Lehrer could have completely skipped connecting Cezanne to neuroscience; the pictures speak for themselves.

Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf
After building up his evidence so well with the chapters on Escoffier, Proust, and Cezanne, Lehrer unfortunately began to lose me again with these last three chapters. Stravinsky "knew" that people's plastic brains could be taught to enjoy and feel new music, although the same could be said for Elvis Presley, Madonna, or any of the other breakthrough musical artists. Gertrude Stein attempted to show that the structure of language is built into us by making words meaningless. Lehrer made a good point that statistics could not truly determine the words in a sentence, as shown through some of Stein's improbably sentences, but the good points end there in that chapter. Virginia Woolf's ideas about the self were intriguing but lacked the connection to neuroscience that some of the other chapters possessed.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist was an interesting recreational read. The points where art and science blended seamlessly easily kept my attention; however, certain chapters lost the connection between the fields, and the book as a whole did not delve into neuroscience as much as I had hoped.
42 of 54 people found the following review helpful
A strong neuronal perturbation Dec 16 2007
By Dr. Lee D. Carlson - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is not surprising at all to hear that artistic musings can predate and even validate scientific theories and observations sometimes by several decades. And since it is ultimately the senses and the brain that allow the appreciation of art and music, it is natural that artists and musicians, even if they know nothing of contemporary cognitive neuroscience, would be able to create works that would exploit both the power and limitations of the senses and the brain. This book, elegantly written but far too short for those who are captivated by its contents and are greedy for more, gives some examples of this. Indeed, composers, authors, chefs, and artists such as Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Igor Stravinsky, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Paul Cezanne all showed great insight into brain function the author argues, and it was this insight, although they may not have explicitly acknowledged it, that enabled them to have such an impact. This impact was sometimes delayed as far as social recognition was concerned, but if examined in the light of modern research in cognitive neuroscience, their contributions take on a whole new meaning, and one that goes beyond how they affected the individual reader or listener. The author's contributions in this book can be viewed somewhat loosely in the context of what might be called `neurocriticism', or `neuro-humanities'. The goal of these disciplines (not really recognized "officially" by academia) is to interpret literature, art, science, and other categories in light of what is now understood about the science of the brain. This is a fascinating approach to the understanding of these categories, and one that is gaining momentum as better experimental techniques are discovered for studying brain processes. And such an approach will also assist in bringing together, or maybe even setting apart in a way that is justified by neuroscience, the sciences and the humanities. The author ends the book longing for recognition of the arts as a legitimate mode of cognition; one that can offer paths to knowledge and insights that science may not be able at first to traverse. But with scientific studies of consciousness gaining credibility, and with phenomena such as synaesthesia being taken seriously by the scientific community, the author has no cause to worry. It is the brain that holds the key to the sciences and the humanities, and if it brings them together this will be fine for both artist and scientist. If it sets them apart, one can delight in the toggling between one and the other, engaging maybe in a temporary riot of mental cognition, much the same as what Stravinsky's audience did as detailed in this book. Either alternative is awesome.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Disappointing April 10 2010
By cm - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I found this book disappointing. It initially appeared to be a consideration of the interaction between the arts and sciences and how the two fields complemented or contributed to one another. Instead it presents a group of artists who apparently had ideas about the mind, the brain, how we sense things, who we are as humans and contrasts these ideas with prevalent scientific ideas at the time. Since the artists' ideas were new and untested scientifically, they were frequently dismissed by some scientists. The conclusion - science was blind to the brilliant new ideas of artists, frequently willfully so.

There are several things that bother me about this book. The author necessarily simplifies the science he discusses, primarily neuroscience, frequently to the point of being inaccurate and several times incorrect. Given that, it made me wonder how often the ideas of the artists were portrayed inaccurately, or incorrectly. I found it difficult to trust in what was written about the arts and artists.

The author tends to make the scientific culture monolithic and unyielding. There are certainly scientists who are rigid and arrogant in their thinking, but many (most) who understand that what is known today will be modified extensively tomorrow. Even though he worked for a time in an outstanding neuroscience lab, the author does not seem to have a good grasp of the scientific method. While he clearly trumpets its limitations, it is not in the context of understanding the method itself.

The adjective and verbs applied to science are frequently negative, signaling who is wrong and who is right before the discussion begins. Terms such as inane, fashionable obsession, ransacked, derision, typically stubborn are applied to science or scientists and not to artists. How do you trust someone who biases the argument from the beginning?

It appears a major theme in this book is an argument against science as religion - the belief in the untestable hypothesis that science will ultimately be able to explain everything humans do and think and feel on a molecular basis. It is an important argument to make but the way the book is written, the author is preaching to the choir and is not going to convince anyone who holds the opposite belief or, more importantly, is not sure.

I give the author credit for being thought provoking and interesting. I just wish he would have written a balanced discussion so in the end he would be believable. I thought it was ironic that in the last chapter (Coda), he writes about the idea and failure of a third milieu in which the arts and the sciences could engage in a cross-dialog and draw from each other, and he then criticizes those who took this idea and used it as a prop for a rigid defense of the ultimate triumph of science over all. The irony is that the criticism he levies against the science writers, while accurate, could be used against him from the opposite angle for the entirety of this book. Frustrating.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Shallow May 7 2011
By whiteelephant - Published on
Format: Paperback
The idea that artists anticipated much of what we are now learning about the mind and brain is a compelling thesis, and could have made for a great book. Unfortunately, Lehrer is not the person to write that book. Repeatedly, he exhibits a shallow understanding of both the arts and neuroscience, and to make matters worse is a dull writer. The best of these essays read like the term papers of a promising undergraduate who needs several more years of schooling before publishing anything. The worst of these essays (e.g. Proust, Elliot) are just god-awful.