Proust was a Neuroscientist/Jonah Lehrer: Reflections

Sunday, September 19, 2010

As a former memoirist and ever-ongoing blogger, I think and read a lot about memory—how it works, why it is so radically imprecise, how it shapes us.  I bought Proust was a Neuroscientist, then, because I was primarily interested in Jonah Lehrer's Marcel Proust chapter, subtitled "The Method of Memory."  What is new, I wondered, in memory science?  How did Proust, so many years ago, anticipate the workings of the brain while lying in bed writing and rewriting his so many pages? 

The Proust chapter didn't disappoint, yielding, as it does, the science behind such statements as "we have to misremember something in order to remember it."  But the rest of the book drew me deeply in as well, with its pairings of Auguste Escoffier and "the essence of taste," Paul Cezanne and "the process of sight," Igor Stravinsky and "the source of music," and Gertrude Stein and "the structure of language," among others. A former technician in the lab of Eric Kandel, Lehrer takes a thoughtful look at how some of the great artists anticipated, or somehow understood, just how the mind receives and assembles signals. 

So that we read, for example, that "[Stravinsky] realized that the engine of music is conflict, not consonance"—a fact neuroscience has underscored by proving that it is the "desperate neuronal search for a pattern, any pattern...that is the source of music."  Whitman, for his part, was certain that "when it comes to the drama of feelings, our flesh is the stage" long before neuroscientist Antonio Damasio was able to provide scientific testimony on behalf of the "body loop."  Virginia Woolf wrote of the divided selves, the endless contradictions that inhabit (and haunt) our individual beings well in advance of the split-brain patient studies that demonstrated the chaos that lurks within.

"This is why we need art:  it teaches us how to live with mystery," Lehrer writes in his coda.  A simple claim, perhaps.  But a sustaining one.


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