Reprint: Notes on Proust Was a Neuroscientist--Jonah Lehrer

For the Hyperrationalists
  on February 17, 2009 7:40 AM 

One of the things that most disturbs me about some of the arguments and statements I have read regarding reason and the Church is that were one to take them at face value, they would seem to imply no place whatsoever for the emotional life. As a result, I found the following interesting:
from Proust Was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

One of Damasio's most surprising discoveries is that the feelings generated by the body are an essential element of rational thought. Although we typically assume that our emotions interfere with reason, Damasio's emotionless patients proved incapable of making reasonable decisions. After suffering their brain injuries, all began displaying disturbing changes in behavior. Some made terrible investments and ended up bankrupt; others became dishonest and antisocial; most just spent hours deliberating over irrelevant details. According to Damasio, their frustrating lives are vivid proof that rationality requires feeling, and feeling requires the body. (As Nietzsche put it, "There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom.)
Now, pro forma for me, I must go and look up this Damasio and see on what evidence he bases these conclusions. They are interesting and make a certain sort of intuitive sense--but that is insufficient when making these arguments a matter of the scientific record. So, if I find anything of interest, I'll try to post.

But the real point is . . . Whitman

  on February 17, 2009 7:54 AM 
from Proust Was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

But Whitman also knew that his poems were not simply odes to the material body. This was the mistake that his Victorian critics made; by taking his references to orgasms and organs literally, they missed his true poetic epiphany. The moral of Whitman's verse was that the body wasn't merely a body. Just as leaves of grass grow out of the dirt, feelings grow out of the flesh. What Whitman wanted to show was how these two different substances--the grass and the dirt, the body and the mind--were actually inseparable. You couldn't write poems about one without acknowledging the presence of the other. As Whitman declared, "I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems."
Sometime back on the Disputations blog, there was a lengthy interchange about the resurrection of the body, in which Tom repeatedly stated (and, I've come to acknowledge, correctly) that the resurrection of the body dealt with the real body that we experience and in some mysterious way ARE right now. That is to say that what we have now will be the real body we have at the resurrection. And this makes perfect sense if the body is more than a container, but is in some way the vehicle and the reality of much of what we are.

I know, that doesn't make any real sense, and I'll have to think it through further to say something more like what I mean. The bottom line is that the body helps to define the mind and the mind the body. If so, then moving our present intellect, and perhaps even spirit to some new conveyance would in a very deep way violate who we are. God would not do that because He loves us as we are and loves who we are--without our bodies we are not that same person.

Or so it would seem that Whitman says--and there is much to agree with in the hypothesis.

Against Antineurogenesis

  on February 18, 2009 7:33 AM 
For those of us of a certain age, the truism was passed down that the human brain was more-or-less fixed at or shortly after birth. The neurons you had at the time of fixing were all that you would have your entire life and the brain was a rather obstinate and immaleable organ.

Jonah Lehrer recounts the work of Elizabeth Gould, who in 1989 began exploring the question of neurogenesis and discovered that, in fact, the human brain is a highly malleable organ with new neurons being generated regularly.
from Proust was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

Neuroscience is just beginning to discover the profound ramifications of this discovery. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that modulates learning and memory, is continually supplied with new neurons, which help us to learn and remember new ideas and behaviors. Other scientists have discovered that antidepressants work by stimulating neurogenesis (at least in rodents) , implying that depression is ultimately caused by a decrease in the amount of new neurons, and not by a lack of seratonin. A new class of antidepressants is being developed that targets the neurogenesis pathway. For some reason, newborn brain cells make us happy.

And while freedom remains an abstract idea, neurogenesis is cellular evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving. Eliot was right: to be alive is to be ceaselessly beginning. As she wrote in Middlemarch, the "mind [is] as active as phosphorus." Since we start every day with a slightly new brain, neurogenesis ensures that we are never done with our changes. In the constant turmoil of our cells--in the irrepressible plasticity of our brains--we find our freedom.
The last sentence may be hyperbole (I'd have to give it more consideration than I have done), however, it is amazing to me that these insights should have been linked to the work of George Eliot. The human mind is capable of linking ideas that at first blush seem to have nothing to do with one another. It is this linking of ideas that moves us forward in science, the arts, and even civilization.

Someday, perhaps, we'll be able to make the logical, empathetic, and obvious link that a child in the womb is indeed a living creature separate from and dependent upon the mother for some period of time. Wouldn't it be marvelous if the implications of that statement could take hold of our collective hearts and minds and bring us out of the age of barbarism that we cast ourselves into in the name of some fictive freedom?

DNA and Literature

  on February 18, 2009 7:56 AM
Another useful, amusing insight from Lehrer, "If our DNA has a literary equivalent, it's Finnegan's Wake."

The (non-) Determinism of DNA

  on February 19, 2009 7:38 AM 
Proust Was a Neuroscientist is an endlessly entertaining read, containing more passages to underline than not. It is one of those books in which it might be wiser simply to cross through the extra few lines one does not wish to reconsider in subsequent readings. While the author's attitudes and conclusions are sometimes at odds with my own, his presentation of hard data is fascinating.
from Proust was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

What makes us human, and what makes each of us his or her own human, is not simply the genes that we have buried in our base pairs, but how our cells, in dialogue with our environment, feed back to our DNA, changing the way we read ourselves. Life is a dialectic. For example, the code sequence GTAAGT can be translated as instructions to insert the amino acid valine and serine; read as a spacer, a genetic pause that keeps other protein parts an appropriate distance from one another; or interpreted as a signal to cut the transcript at that point. Our human DNA is defined by its multiplicity of possible meanings; it is a code that requires context. This is why we can share 42 percent of our genome with an insect and 98.7 percent with a chimpanzee and yet still be so completely different from both.

By demonstrating the limits of genetic determinism, the Human Genome Project ended up becoming an ironic affirmation of our individuality. By failing to explain us, the project showed that humanity is not simply a text. It forced molecular biology to focus on how our genes interact with the real world. Our nature, it turns out, is endlessly modified by our nurture. This uncharted area is where the questions get interesting (and inextricably difficult).
Add to these observations the fact that they stem from and flow back into discussion of great poets, novelists, painters, and even chefs, and you can see how the book might be a fascinating discussion of neurobiology and the human mind.

Two from Brillat-Savarin

  on February 19, 2009 8:08 AM
Discovered while perusing Proust Was a Neuroscientist. But outside the book proper

The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.

Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.

Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, 1825

From those snippets if you require the whole, you may find it here. After all, is it possible to resist a book with the subtitle "Transcendental Gastronomy?"

A Post-Modernist Error

  on February 26, 2009 7:56 AM 

"Reality is not out there waiting to be witnessed; reality is made by the mind."--Jonah Lehrer in Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

I call this a post-modernist error, only because post-modernism raised solipsism to an Art; solipsism is at least as old as Rene Descartes who plunged us off the philosophical rails with his highly subjective proof of his own existence.

To start by way of explanation, it may well be that Jonah Lehrer does not intend the literal meaning of this sentence. It can be read in a way that suggests a slightly more nuanced message than the one that I take from it. However, if he does mean it, he commits the fundamental error of the post-modernist movement which is to suggest that reality is not objective.

What Lehrer says in this sentence is that reality is "not out there." This suggests the truth of the second half of the sentence which is that reality is perceived in a slightly different way by each individual. However, the truth of perception does not abnegate the fact that there IS something out there to be perceived and the something out there is an objective reality completely separate from our ability to perceive it correctly or otherwise. Reality IS out there; however, we are incapable of grasping it in full given biomechanical constraints.

The question that comes to mind is how useful is it to know that we cannot perceive reality in its fullness. I liken it to the physical world where Einsteinian space-time and physics replaced the Newtonian Paradigm--but for the work of getting to other planets and making machines run and digging big holes, newtonian mechanics gets the job done just fine. That is, perhaps we can't perceive everything or don't perceive it in exactly the same way as someone else, but unless we have some true perceptual or processing difficulties, is our perception of it so different that we can't talk about it, work with it, and incorporate it in the array of experiences that make up a life? I don't think so. Yes, witnesses of an accident may all have seen or heard something slightly different; however, with the rare exception, such incidents are not Rashomon.

So, were I trying to make the point that I think Lehrer is trying to make, I would say rather that, "Reality is out there, but each of us perceives it somewhat differently because what is objective is reconstructed and interpreted in the mind subjectively." And to be fair, it is possible that Mr. Lehrer's shorter, more elegant sentence is intended to mean just that, and I failed to perceive it.

Proust Was A Neuroscientist--Jonah Lehrer

  on February 27, 2009 7:38 AM

First, an apology to Mr. Lehrer: having reached the end of the book, I found that he has as little use as I do for postmodernism and its errors. That said, the tenor of the book suggests a different philosophical error--materialism. While Lehrer specifically rejects all forms of reductionism within science, it appears that he thinks that Art and Science together explain it all. While that is a very enticing view for me, it seems to lack any element of the spirit and so I am uncertain. But here again, I must admit to reading into, and perhaps reading into incorrectly, so I apologize in advance if I have misinterpreted what is, admittedly, more a lack of evidence than any explicit or clear statement.

The book is wonderful from start to finish. It is provocative and delightful in the way that it weaves the discoveries of artists--A poet, four novelists, a painter, a composer, and a chef--into a narrative about modern discoveries about how the brain works. You learn about the reality of umami, the mystery of the self, the (in)persistence of memory, the structure of language, the structure of painting and art, and the meaning of freedom. All are fascinating. You learn how the act of remembering subtly alters the memories--much as Proust described in his magnificent opus. You find out that language has deep structures that, try as you might, don't really allow for violation--sense seems to surface. You learn why you may sometimes hate something upon first hearing it and then grow gradually to enjoy it.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and important lessons I will take away from the book is simple and appropriate for Lent. Reality is objective: our consciousness of it is, to some extent, our choice. That is, the human brain is limited. It can only absorb so much. So, there is a sense in which Emperor Joseph II in Amadeus is right. The human brain can only deal with so much and then it becomes "too many notes." We can see the tree as a whole, but only when we choose to focus on them do we become conscious of individual leaves. If we pick up a fallen leaf, we may observe the whole thing against a background that has become a blur. If we look more closely, the leaf falls away and we become aware of the veining structure. All of these things are part of an objective reality, but we choose what we will become conscious of. In a sense, so it is with God. He is the ultimate Objective Reality. However, we can choose to witness His works and His power here, or we can choose to see everything as a blur and not see anything of Him. That is our choice. Lent gives us an opportunity to focus our perception, to change our consciousness of things as they are and begin to participate in them as the Really Are.

Back to Mr. Lehrer's book--a fine, substantive work--at once a scholarly study of recent findings in neuroscience by a person of taste and understanding who reads literature as well as he studies science. A rare and much-to-be-valued skill in the world today. If you have any interest in the workings of the brain and the workings of literature, art, and even cooking, you could find no better companion that Mr. Lehrer to guide you through both.


  1. Steven

    Thank you. That sounds like essential reading and has been added to my wish list.


  2. Dear Anthony,

    Thank you for the note. I'm pleased because this was a book that was well worth reading and one that lingers in memory and calls me back from time to time to browse one or the other of the chapters. It was simple enough for the lay person, but I think it is accurate enough as far as my further reading in the field suggests.




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