Five minutes with Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer is the author of a new book that argues that arts and literature can help us understand the brain. It’s provocatively titled Proust was a Neuroscientist and it challenges us to look beyond the lab when understanding neuroscience.

Lehrer himself moved from graduated from the neuroscience lab to a career in writing, and is now one of the editors of Seed Magazine.

He also pens gripping brain science articles, including, most recently, a wonderful encounter with Oliver Sacks in this month’s edition, and of course, his frequent updates at the Frontal Cortex blog.

He’s also kindly agreed to speak to Mind Hacks about his new book, why Cezanne is a candidate for cognitive science experiments, and how reverse engineering art can help us understand the mind.

I’m going to come clean. The first time I heard the title ‘Proust is a Neuroscientist’ I was a little sceptical. Surely, I thought, Proust was no more a neuroscientist than Elvis was a psychologist. So, convince me. Why should people interested in the brain be inspired by Proust?

It’s a pretty strange idea, I know. Proust wrote fiction, which is supposed to be the opposite of scientific fact. But my basic argument is that, in the case of Proust, you can extract a set of scientific truths from the novels that anticipated some very modern neuroscientific ideas about how memory works.

Take the famous Madeleine episode, where Proust dips his cookie into some tea and suddenly remembers the “exquisite pleasures” of his childhood. In the novel, Proust is very clear that smell and taste bear a unique burden of memory. “When from a long distance past nothing subsists,” Proust writes, “taste and smell alone‚Ķremain poised a long time, like souls, remembering.” In other words, our sense of smell is uniquely sentimental.

At the time, scientists had no idea that Proust was telling the truth. They didn’t yet realize that the olfactory cortex is the only sense that connects directly to the hippocampus, a center of long-term memory. A few years ago, Rachel Herz, a psychologist at Brown, showed ‚Äì in a witty paper entitled “Testing the Proustian Hypothesis” ‚Äì that Proust intuited some aspects of our cortical anatomy.

But this isn’t the only thing Proust discovered about memory. In fact, his novels also outline some very recent (and profound) discoveries of modern neuroscience, such as the fact that we are constantly reconsolidating our memories, revising our sense of the past in light of the present. At the very least, we should make Proust an honorary neuroscientist.

You seem to mostly focus on past artists but jokingly mentioned in a recent interview that maybe your next book will be called ‘Kanye West was a neuroscientist’. Are there contemporary artists that you value as potentially inspiring progress in the brain sciences?

There are some obvious candidates, like Richard Powers and Ian McEwan, who have written wonderful novels about modern neuroscience. (See, for example, Galatea 2.2 or Saturday or The Echo Maker.) But I don’t think it’s necessary to write on a scientific theme in order to contribute to science. The reason we are still reading Homer and Shakespeare and Joyce is that the art feels true. The work endures because it seems to capture something essential about human nature.

The question for science is what that is. Why is Hamlet such a potent character? Why do we stare at Jackson Pollack paintings? Why are Kanye West’s samples so captivating to the acoustic cortex? Artists are constantly being forced to reverse-engineer the brain. By reverse-engineering the art – by trying to understand why, exactly, it resonates with us – we can learn about the mind.

The pattern seems to be that art speculates and science confirms. Can you see a situation where art will confirm something that science has predicted?

I’m not sure art can ever confirm something in a way that would satisfy Karl Popper. But I do think that artists can still help scientists. In a sense, the arts are really an incredibly rich data set, providing us with a glimpse of the emergent phenomena we still can’t comprehend.

We should be testing our theories of object recognition on Cezanne paintings. How does the mind detect an apple amid such a mess of brushstrokes? We should be looking at Proust to clarify our thoughts on episodic memory. Woolf can help us untangle the link between attention and the stream of consciousness. Obviously, we are always going to get our scientific answers from scientific experiments. But I do think that art can help us ask better scientific questions.

If you could give one piece of advice to mind and brain scientists when they’re communicating their work, what would it be?

W.H. Auden once said that when he found himself in the company of scientists he felt like “a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a room full of dukes.” I understand the feeling entirely, so I’m reluctant to be giving scientists advice.

But when I was working in a lab, my scientific mentor taught me something very important. After yet another experimental failure – I excelled at experimental failure – he said to me, “Remember this feeling. You have no idea what’s going on. When you write the paper, remember that you still don’t really know what’s going on. You just think you do.”

Name three under-rated things.

Bob Dylan’s music during the 1980’s.
Old neuroscience textbooks.
Pasta with tomato sauce and parmesan.

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