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January 27, 2008

'Proust Was a Neuroscientist'


Interesting concept.

Author Jonah Lehrer talked with Jennifer Hillner in a Wired magazine interview, which follows.

    Q&A: Rhodes Scholar Jonah Lehrer on Art for Science’s Sake

    Jonah Lehrer wants scientists to bone up on the classics. A former neuroscience lab drone, the 26-year-old Rhodes scholar would devour pages of Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way" whenever he wasn't spinning down DNA. In the process, he made a discovery: Artists have something to teach researchers. In his new book, "Proust Was a Neuroscientist," Lehrer argues that many artists have foretold the scientific future — Proust revealed the inaccuracy of memory, chef Auguste Escoffier anticipated the fifth taste sensation we now call umami, and post-impressionist Paul Cézanne proved that the brain fills in what a painting doesn't show. Wired asked Lehrer to explain why the white coats should go all black-beret.

    Wired: Do you really think that we'll find answers to science's Big Questions in the arts?

    Lehrer: Virginia Woolf isn't going to help you finish your lab experiment. What she will do is help you ask your questions better. Proust focused on problems that neuroscience itself didn't grapple with until relatively recently — questions of memory that couldn't be crammed into Pavlovian reinforcement: Why are memories so unreliable? Why do they change so often? Why do we remember only certain aspects of the past?

    Wired: Has the separation of the disciplines held them back?

    Lehrer: It has affected both cultures adversely. You read the diary of Woolf and the letters of Cézanne and realize they thought they were discovering something true — in the same real way that science is true — but we don't think of artists that way anymore. The separation has also led science to neglect this other side of the mind. It's important to acknowledge that when you discuss the brain only in terms of proteins and enzymes, you're missing something.

    Wired: Which artists are making the discoveries of tomorrow?

    Lehrer: Maybe my next book will be "Kanye West Was a Neuroscientist." He's making use of the same musical principles as Beethoven, the same idea of building toward a pattern but then denying the listener that pattern by injecting randomness, because that unexpectedness is what your auditory cortex really craves.

    Wired: What scientific advances are affecting artists today?

    Lehrer: Neuroscience has come up with some amazing things in the past couple of decades, like the idea that there is no you in the brain, no neuron that is you or that cares about you. You're just a massively distributed parallel network. And the idea that from the perspective of DNA we're all so incredibly similar. That feels very novelistic to me.

    Wired: Which of today's artists and scientists would you pair up?

    Lehrer: Sculptor Richard Serra should read about string theory and figure out a way to simulate what 11 dimensions might be like. I would love to put Serra and physicist Brian Greene together.

January 27, 2008 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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What a hairy arm!!!!

Posted by: vawahine | Jan 27, 2008 12:24:50 PM

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