Sunday, October 03, 2010

Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer

This book caught my eye multiple times in the book store (yes, I still go to book stores) and I didn't pick it up because I feared it would be meandering and oversimplified like some of Malcolm Gladwell's books.  But, upon seeing it on a friends' shelf when i was without book (!), I decided to give it a try.  I'm so glad I did!

While Lehrer gave many simplified examples for several of his arguments, or while he attributed too much to single people [see article from Slate], I didn't mind and found it to be easy reading while giving the reader enough to ponder.

The idea of this books is that many of the advancements made in neuroscience can be shown in example in the philosophies of artist long before science proved them (or even tried to prove them).

Some of my favorite chapters are:
  • The Essence of Taste, which talked about the discovery of umami and its pared down amino acid, L-glutamate, by Kikunae Ikeda, the savory cooking style of August Escoffier, and the finding of the exact receptors on the tongue for this particular taste in 2000.  Fascinating.  It also made me hungry.
  • The Method of Memory, which discusses how faulty our memory is, how the act of remembering changes our memories, and how Marcel Proust philosophized on this very subject in his "fiction."
  • The Source of Music, which discusses our mind's plasticity, especially when it comes to sound, the corticofugal network (awesome), which continually alters what patterns our sensory cells respond to, and Stravinsky's experiment of these very phenomena with his Rite of Spring.
  • AND The Emergent Self, which discusses teh quest of neuroscientists to find the self in the contradictory mess of our short-term memory, the "neural corelate of consciousness" (NCC for short - c'mon - really??) and Virginia Woolf's experiments with demonstrating these functions and the self's elusiveness in her literature.
This book is touted as a work that demonstrates how art trumps science, but I really see it as showing two sides of the same coin and how related the two really are.  Read this book and let me know what you think!