Neurology Narratives

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Canongate Publishers in Edinburgh recently reissued Jonas Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist. I missed the original publication when Houghton Mifflin printed it in Boston in 2007. This is a wonderful book title, even if Proust was more neurasthenic than neuroscientist.

The new dust jacket reiterates that “science is not the only path to knowledge. In fact, when it comes to understanding the brain, art got there first. Taking a group of artists — a painter, a poet, a chef, a composer, and a handful of novelists — Lehrer shows how each one discovered an essential truth about the mind that science is only now rediscovering. We learn, for example, how Proust first revealed the fallibility of memory; how George Eliot discovered the brain’s malleability; how the French chef Escoffier discovered umami (the fifth taste); how Cézanne worked out the subtleties of vision; and how Gertrude Stein exposed the deep structure of language — a full half-century before the work of Noam Chomsky and other linguists. It’s the ultimate tale of art trumping science.”

Well, not quite, but Lehrer does not attack science, although he highlights the cost of reducing concepts to atoms and genes. He seems more concerned with the ways in which we know – especially the notion that measurement (all kinds) and understanding (intuiting) entail two different types of knowledge. This is a thorny position to unravel, even more difficult to develop. It is not immediately apparent why measurement should be a lesser form of “understanding” than the type that derives from words, colors, and the senses.

Lehrer is spot on to argue that science and art need to listen more closely to each other than they do at present. It almost sounds as if his subtext is the revival of the two-cultures controversy in a new key. This would not be a bad thing if it encouraged our most capable minds to combine the best of both worlds to brilliant effect. But it is a tall order at a moment when the humanities are under such attack, and when resources everywhere seem to be contracting, even in the sciences. I am grateful to Lehrer for braving it. I wish others would too. For some young scholars under thirty the two-cultures controversy was a thing of the past – dead and gone.