Proust Was a Neuroscientist - Jonah Lehrer (2007)
I used to work in a neuroscience lab. We were trying to figure out how the mind remembers, how a collection of cells can encapsulate our past. I was just a lab technician, and most of my day was spent performing the strange verbs of bench science: amplifying, vortexing, pipetting, sequencing, digesting, and so on. It was simple manual labor, but the work felt profound. Mysteries were distilled into minor questions, and if my experiments didn't fail, I ended up with an answer. The truth seemed to slowly accumulate, like dust.
At the same time, I began reading Proust. I would often bring my copy of Swann's Way into the lab and read a few pages while waiting for an experiment to finish. All I expected from Proust was a little entertainment, or perhaps an education in the art of constructing sentences. For me, his story about one man's memory was simply that: a story. It was a work of fiction, the opposite of scientific fact.
But once I got past the jarring contrast of forms—my science spoke in acronyms, while Proust preferred meandering prose—I began to see a surprising convergence. The novelist had predicted my experiments. Proust and neuroscience shared a vision of how our memory works. If you listened closely, they were actually saying the same thing.
This book is about artists who anticipated the discoveries of neuroscience. It is about writers and painters and composers who discovered truths about the human mind—real, tangible truths—that science is only now rediscovering. Their imaginations foretold the facts of the future.
Of course, this isn't the way knowledge is supposed to advance. Artists weave us pretty tales, while scientists objectively describe the universe. In the impenetrable prose of the scientific paper, we imagine a perfect reflection of reality. One day, we assume, science will solve everything.
In this book, I try to tell a different story. Although these artists witnessed the birth of modern science—Whitman and Eliot contemplated Darwin, Proust and Woolf admired Einstein—they never stopped believing in the necessity of art. As scientists were beginning to separate thoughts into their anatomical parts, these artists wanted to understand consciousness from the inside. Our truth, they said, must begin with us, with what reality feels like.
Each of these artists had a peculiar method. Marcel Proust spent all day in bed, ruminating on his past. Paul Cézanne would stare at an apple for hours. Auguste Escoffier was just trying to please his customers. Igor Stravinsky was trying not to please his customers. Gertrude Stein liked to play with words. But despite their technical differences, all of these artists shared an abiding interest in human experience. Their creations were acts of exploration, ways of grappling with the mysteries they couldn't understand.
These artists lived in an age of anxiety. By the middle of the nineteenth century, as technology usurped romanticism, the essence of human nature was being questioned. Thanks to the distressing discoveries of science, the immortal soul was dead. Man was a monkey, not a fallen angel. In the frantic search for new kinds of expression, artists came up with a new method: they looked in the mirror. (As Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, "The mind has become aware of itself.") This inward turn created art that was exquisitely self-conscious; its subject was our psychology.
The birth of modern art was messy. The public wasn't accustomed to free-verse poems or abstract paintings or plotless novels. Art was supposed to be pretty or entertaining, preferably both. It was supposed to tell us stories about the world, to give us life as it should be, or could be. Reality was hard, and art was our escape. But the modernists refused to give us what we wanted. In a move of stunning arrogance and ambition, they tried to invent fictions that told the truth. Although their art was difficult, they aspired to transparency: in the forms and fractures of their work, they wanted us to see ourselves.
The eight artists in this book are not the only people who tried to understand the mind. I have chosen them because their art proved to be the most accurate, because they most explicitly anticipated our science. Nevertheless, the originality of these artists was influenced by a diverse range of other thinkers. Whitman was inspired by Emerson, Proust imbibed Bergson, Cézanne studied Pissarro, and Woolf was emboldened by Joyce. I have attempted to sketch the intellectual atmosphere that shaped their creative process, to highlight the people and ideas from which their art emerged.
One of the most important influences on all of these artists—and the only influence they all shared—was the science of their time. Long before C. P. Snow mourned the sad separation of our two cultures, Whitman was busy studying brain anatomy textbooks and watching gruesome surgeries, George Eliot was reading Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell, Stein was conducting psychology experiments in William James's lab, and Woolf was learning about the biology of mental illness. It is impossible to understand their art without taking into account its relationship to science.
This was a thrilling time to be studying science. By the start of the twentieth century, the old dream of the Enlightenment seemed within reach. Everywhere scientists looked, mystery seemed to retreat. Life was just chemistry, and chemistry was just physics. The entire universe was nothing but a mass of vibrating molecules. For the most part, this new knowledge represented the triumph of a method; scientists had discovered reductionism and were successfully applying it to reality. In Plato's metaphor, the reductionist aims to "cut nature at its joints, like a good butcher." The whole can be understood only by breaking it apart, dissecting reality until it dissolves. This is all we are: parts, acronyms, atoms.
But these artists didn't simply translate the facts of science into pretty new forms. That would have been too easy. By exploring their own experiences, they expressed what no experiment could see. Since then, new scientific theories have come and gone, but this art endures, as wise and resonant as ever.
We now know that Proust was right about memory, Cézanne was uncannily accurate about the visual cortex, Stein anticipated Chomsky, and Woolf pierced the mystery of consciousness; modern neuroscience has confirmed these artistic intuitions. In each of the following chapters, I have tried to give a sense of the scientific process, of how scientists actually distill their data into rigorous new hypotheses. Every brilliant experiment, like every great work of art, starts with an act of imagination.
Unfortunately, our current culture subscribes to a very narrow definition of truth. If something can't be quantified or calculated, then it can't be true. Because this strict scientific approach has explained so much, we assume that it can explain everything. But every method, even the experimental method, has limits. Take the human mind. Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details; they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn't how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.
The moral of this book is that we are made of art and science. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we are also just stuff. We now know enough about the brain to realize that its mystery will always remain. Like a work of art, we exceed our materials. Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery. Neither truth alone is our solution, for our reality exists in plural.
I hope these stories of artistic discovery demonstrate that any description of the brain requires both cultures, art and science. The reductionist methods of science must be allied with an artistic investigation of our experience. In the following chapters, I try to re-imagine this dialogue. Science is seen through the optic of art, and art is interpreted in the light of science. The experiment and the poem complete each other. The mind is made whole.