three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
By: 
Jonah Lehrer
user_rating: 
0
A-Proust Was a Neuroscientist"In the stuffy silence of his Parisian studio, [Marcel Proust] listened so intently to his sentimental brain that he discovered how it operated." So argues Jonah Lehrer, who in this fascinating debut argues that eight 19th- and 20th-century artists envisioned 21st-century breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience. Proust discerned the instability and inaccuracy of memory. Paul Cézanne reproduced on his canvases the inner workings of the visual cortex. Gertrude Stein’s prose anticipated the work of Noam Chomsky, while Virginia Woolf charted the terrain of the conscious mind. Icons such as Igor Stravinsky, George Eliot, Walt Whitman, and Auguste Escoffier instinctively knew what scientists are only now able to prove, suggesting that the gap between science and the arts may not be as wide as we think.
Houghton Mifflin. 256 pages. $24. ISBN: 0618620109

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Looked at one way, Proust Was a Neuroscientist is a lucid summary of the brain as seen by contemporary neuroscience; looked at again, it is an inspired interpretation of the work of eight 19th and 20th century artists and writers whose insights, Lehrer claims, anticipated our current understanding. In lesser hands, this argument would be merely tendentious, but Lehrer’s command of his material is so complete that he persuasively makes his case with scientific acuity and aesthetic sensitivity." Jesse Cohen

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"At the age of 25 (!) [Lehrer] has written a dazzling yet always accessible book blending literary criticism and neuroscience. … This exhilarating book will give you much to think about and make you feel good about your endlessly innovative brain." Brigitte Frase

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Lehrer is a capable scientific popularizer, rendering the recent spate of discoveries about the complexity of the human brain comprehensible to laymen. While Proust devotes equal time to art and science, Lehrer will probably prove of more interest to humanities geeks interested in moving beyond A Brief History of Time." Saul Austerlitz

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"Each of Lehrer’s chapters is devoted to one artist, and gets a tad predictable (e.g., Woolf thought the self was an illusion? Later neuroscientists backed her up!). … But Lehrer writes skillfully and coherently about both art and science—no small feat." Gregory Kirschling

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Lehrer is smart, and there are some fun moments in these pages. … At the same time, I’m not sure all his conclusions follow from his data." D.T. Max

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2 of 5 Stars
"Why reduce so much marvelous complexity—how the brain works, Proust’s prose, the nature of smell, the creative process, the scientific method—to a cause-and-effect hypothesis? … Both science and art lose out in this book." Anne Trubek

Critical Summary

Jonah Lehrer, a Rhodes scholar working in the lab of a Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist, was participating in experiments on the nature of memory while reading Proust’s Swann’s Way. He was amazed to find that the author had predicted his scientific findings nearly a century earlier. This epiphany inspired Lehrer to reexamine other great works of art. This highly readable book generally engaged and enlightened critics; Lehrer writes competently despite his "graduate-student earnestness" (Cleveland Plain Dealer). A few critics felt that some conclusions were strained and some generalizations did a disservice to the very fields they were meant to illuminate; however, most considered Lehrer’s arguments compelling and persuasive. If not all critics bought Lehrer’s claims, his book nonetheless "marks the arrival of an important new thinker" (Los Angeles Times).