Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist

How Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist overstates the case.

Here’s a pretty safe bet: At some point this week, somewhere in the world—a darkened auditorium, a classroom, or an academic conference—a biologist will quote Marcel Proust.

My career as a grad student in neuroscience was filled with these obligatory madeleine moments: It seemed like every talk, lecture, presentation, or paper on the biology of memory began with a dip into Swann’s Way. An extended passage from the book appears in the brain researcher’s standard reference manual, Principles of Neural Science, and Proustian inscriptions routinely make their way into peer-reviewed science journals (PDF) and book chapters. Even the most sublunary findings—a study of cultured mouse cells or the neuromuscular junction of a fly—might earn the literary flourish of a line or two, projected above an audience on a PowerPoint slide: “I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. … “

How surprising, then, to discover that biologists have forgotten all about Proust. That’s the leaky premise of science journalist Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. “As scientists dissect our remembrances into a list of molecules and brain regions,” he writes, “they fail to realize they are channeling a reclusive French novelist.” If only they knew!

And it’s not just Proust whose work is being “channeled.” According to Lehrer, the lab-coated philistines have spent 100 years rehashing the discoveries of modernist literature, painting, and music. “We now know that Proust was right about memory, Cezanne was uncannily accurate about the visual cortex, Stein anticipated Chomsky, and Woolf pierced the mystery of consciousness; modern neuroscience has confirmed these artistic intuitions.”

These claims might serve as the sketchy points of reference for a more modest book—a lighthearted jaunt through neuroscience, perhaps, as seen through the eyes of some of our most beloved artists. (Remember The Bard on the Brain?) But Lehrerhas no such project in mind. He means exactly what he says about art and science, and wants his rhetoric to be taken quite literally: Proust Was a Neuroscientist “is about writers and painters and composers who discovered truths about the human mind—real, tangible truths—that science is only now rediscovering.” So where are these real, tangible truths?  What, exactly, did these artists—Proust, Cezanne, Stein, and Woolf, among others—figure out about the human brain?

The neurological breakthroughs attributed to turn-of-the-century artists range from the maddeningly vague to the absurdly specific. In Chapter 2, for example, Lehrer credits novelist George Eliot with rejecting hard-core scientific determinism and affirming free will. In her fiction, she discovered that the human mind is malleable, always changing. Neuroscientists only verified this idea many decades later, he says, with the discovery of “adult neurogenesis,” or the birth of new neurons in a mature brain.

In fact, one has nothing to do with the other. It’s true that until the 1990s, most neuroscientists didn’t think the brain could generate new cells past childhood. But that doesn’t mean they thought “the fate of the mind was sealed,” as Lehrer puts it. Of course our brains can change: How else would we learn new skills or form new memories? The neurogenesis debate—more technical than philosophical—was more concerned with the question of how this change occurs, as opposed to whether it happens at all. Do new cells pop up out of nowhere or does our cortex merely reshuffle the connections among cells that are already there? It’s hard to believe that George Eliot had any stake in that question.

Eliot was hardly the first to consider the question of free will. Nor was Auguste Escoffier the first chef to stumble upon umami, the fifth cardinal taste (alongside sour, salty, bitter, and sweet). In the next chapter, Lehrer congratulates the turn-of-the-century Frenchman for basing his cuisine on veal stock and emphasizing a flavor whose receptor wouldn’t be identified in the lab until 2000. But it’s never clear exactly how much credit Escoffier deserves for this innovation. After all, Lehrer admits that French cooks had been making umami-rich stock for centuries. Some 150 years earlier, famed gastronomist Brillat-Savarin described it as a “food which agrees with everyone” and “the basis of the French national diet.” Or why not give the scoop to Kikunae Ikeda, the Japanese chemist who succeeded in isolating the umami compound from a seaweed broth in 1907?

But Lehrer would rather assign these great discoveries to household names. You have to wonder if Igor Stravinsky was really the first to identify “our ability to adapt to new kinds of music,” for example. As Lehrer points out, Arnold Schoenberg broke with musical tradition earlier and more thoroughly.  There’s even reason to doubt the book’s keystone example: Some of Proust’s famous insights into the workings of memory seem to have originated with Paul Sollier—a neurologist who treated the novelist for six weeks in 1905.

Many of the breakthroughs attributed to the artists profiled in the book seem to have been prefigured—or even stated outright—by contemporary theorists like William James. Indeed, the architect of American psychology lurks in almost every chapter: In a discussion of Cezanne’s discovery that the mind fabricates an image of the world from our sensory impressions, Lehrer quotes from James’ Pragmatism, saying substantially the same thing; when he explains how Woolf discovered our splintered consciousness, it’s James again, on the “mutations of the self”; a chapter on Gertrude Stein’s discovery of the language instinct begins with her work in William James’ laboratory at Harvard; and so on. (For a discussion of James’ considerable influence on Proust, you’ll have to look elsewhere [PDF].) Midway through the book, I started to wonder if a better title would have been James Was a Psychologist.

Lehrer doesn’t dwell on this context.  He portrays his chosen artists as smashing the idols of reductionism and determinism, as if these represented the whole of contemporary scientific thought. In fact, the dialectics of body and mind, nature and nurture, and mechanism and vitalism had animated vigorous debate for generations, and would continue to do so for generations to come.

In the end, it doesn’t matter very much who first identified these qualities of human experience. Neuroscience has no need for originality: The grand project of the field is to explain the well-known phenomena of consciousness, to find the source of all those recorded truths about the human mind that have been hashed out and rehashed by artists for thousands of years. Proust turns up so often in neuroscience talks and papers not because he discovered something new about the mechanism of memory. The biologists quote him because he gave beautiful voice to the phenomenon itself. They use his words to remind us: This is our experience; this is what we’re talking about. Now let’s figure out how it works.

Update, Nov. 27, 2007: At the suggestion of one of our Fraysters, I’m compiling a list of the all-time worst literary allusions in the history of peer-reviewed science.

To get us started, drone offers up this gem:

“Great writers, from Dante to Joyce, often weave various meanings into their writings.”—Guigo et al. 2006. Unweaving the meanings of messenger RNA sequences. Molecular Cell 23: 150-151.

Post your suggestions in the Fray or e-mail them to me.