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.
Other chapters include Igor Stravinsky who introduced the 20th century of music dissonance and atonality by trying to change all the old rules about how classical music should sound and progress, harmonically, that the mind rebels at newness but soon it becomes, familiar, trusted and wished for; Gertrude Stein and her unending battle to write language without its form, essentially random gibberish, but had to concede that no matter how much she tried, underneath it all there was the structure of grammar - Chomsky's universal grammar; and, Virginia Woolf and how her stream of consciousness novels reveal our emerging selves, in that the odd notion that we exist only in so far as our attention is focused on perception is true, and thus the self exists only in these moments, though we experience it as an ongoing river through time; the self exists for 10 second lengths before short term memory collapses and attention makes the next splinter seem joined as though seamlessly.
This 'lad' has managed to put in his brain more science and art than most people manage in a lifetime. And he expresses it so clearly that when you hit hard, dry, stuff like quantum mechanics, you go, oh, so that is what that means. The book is endlessly brainy, inventive, charmingly erudite, and at the same time cracklingly readable. I say this as a person with one of my degrees in biochemistry and who has been a poet for more than 30 years. I am in the process of writing a book on the brains of poets, (see dcreid.ca), and have read tons on these subjects. This is wonderfully well wrought stuff about difficult things to understand.
"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. Lehrer repeatedly demonstrates that an authentic epistemology based on true understanding can be found just as well in a literary and aesthetic approach to life as it can to a supposedly true scientific approach, requiring dialogue between entities, multiple interpretations, flexibility, while at the same time, in order to satisfy us, a degree of cohesion and elegance.
Some exciting questions:
If personal identity, or the mind and interior self, is linked to the brain and our genetic DNA, what does it mean if our brains are constantly regenerating and if our DNA at a fundamental level remains inscrutable? If personal identity, or the mind and the interior self, are linked to our experiences and memories, what does it mean if our memories are plastic and only truly "exist" in the active process of retrieving them when we need to "fill in the blanks"?
Thus, neither objective matter (ie. DNA) nor subjective experience (memories and identity) is reliable. Both seem to be vaguely coherent, patchwork blankets.
While to some the prospect is frightening, I see the disenchantment with Science Ltd., as well as Humanism Ltd. (which perhaps too often associates our dignity and importance with our rationality) as a an opportunity to elevate and expand the appreciation of art and acknowledge our beautifully constructed identity. Our common coat of arms.
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."
I loved this book. It made me think about how the mind works, and connected those thought to every-day life. Several years after reading it I am still reminded of these thoughts by everyday life, and still recommending this book to friends.
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.