What's reality, what's perception? Art and neuroscience try a look

Review Science

November 04, 2007|By Jesse Cohen | Jesse Cohen,Los Angeles Times

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

By Jonah Lehrer

Houghton Mifflin / 242 pages / $24

Thanks to advances in neuroscience, a new model of the brain has emerged: dynamic, plastic, constantly regenerating and reorganizing itself, processing stimuli with such creative virtuosity that it's hard to tell where reality ends and our mental translation of it begins. Optical illusions, in which the brain creates shapes, colors and movement absent in the images, are but one example.

Jonah Lehrer, a science journalist with a neuroscience background, argues in Proust Was a Neuroscientist that this model is not as new as it seems. I mean no disrespect when I say his book is itself something of an optical illusion - one of those figure/ground affairs, like the two profiles that vanish when the vase between them appears. 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.

He starts with Walt Whitman, whose "central poetic idea" was that "body and mind are inseparable. ... We do not have a body, we are a body." Mind/body duality is an illusion, and not just for Whitman. Lehrer offers as examples the phenomenon of "phantom limbs" (reported by amputees) and the research of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio into how "from our muscles we steal our moods."

Lehrer next turns to George Eliot, who rebelled against the scientific positivism of her time: the belief that everything, including human behavior, could be reduced to a set of physical laws and subject to accurate prediction. Lehrer sees Eliot as anticipating two scientific paradigms: neurogenesis (the continuous, lifelong generation of new brain cells) and the idea that our DNA "makes us without determining us."

Lehrer, who has also worked in four-star restaurant kitchens, deems Auguste Escoffier an artist as well, one who intuited concepts now central to our ideas of taste. He served his dishes piping hot to better release their aromas, and we now know that the sense of smell is 90 percent of taste; his long-simmering stocks and sauces were rich in the flavor recent research has identified as l-glutamate, the fifth of our taste receptors; and he offered varied menus to accommodate different preferences, though presumably unaware that "the human olfactory cortex, the part of the brain that interprets information from the tongue and nose, is ... free to arrange itself around the content of our individual experiences."

As for Proust, his insights go beyond the observation that memory is bound to physical sensation (yes, that madeleine). The Proustian narrator "is constantly altering his remembered descriptions of things and people. ... In any other novel, such sloppiness would be considered a mistake. But in [In Search of Lost Time], the instability and inaccuracy of memory is the moral." As Proust suspected, our creative brains constantly revise our memories: "[E]very time we remember anything, the neuronal structure of the memory is delicately transformed."

Paul Cezanne tried to grasp the image before the brain's tidy repackaging of it. He "broke the laws of painting in order to reveal the laws of seeing." Gertrude Stein's grammatical but seemingly meaningless prose points to Noam Chomsky's deep structure: "[E]very language - from English to Cantonese - [is] the same. ... [sharing] a universal grammar built into the brain." And Virginia Woolf, who chronicled so precisely her characters' shifting yet stable sense of self, leads right to the latest theory of consciousness. "For Woolf ... the self is an illusion. ... Modern neuroscience is now confirming the self Woolf believed in. We invent ourselves out of our own sensations."

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