My friend Dom sent me a paperback book as a birthday present—as just one among a number of precisely thoughtful presents she likes to send me from time to time, like CARE packages.
My birthday was in March. Unlike the other presents, the book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, arrived late. It was late because she wanted the author to inscribe it to me (he wrote on the title page, “To Joe Marohl, A fellow Proustophile! I hope you enjoy … Jonah Lehrer”)—because, I suspect, she thought I would think the 27-year-old writer is cute.
And I sort of do.
The book is a wonder. It is not focused on the great novelist Marcel Proust alone, but covers eight figures of the modern era—Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Paul Cézanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf included. From the compositions of these original minds, Lehrer extracts details relating to recent scientific discoveries about the human nervous system.
The book has opened my eyes to the fact that my humanist heroes, like Whitman, Proust, and Stein, followed the scientific discoveries of their day with not only great interest but also some expertise. But, more importantly to Lehrer’s thesis, their imagination of human nature was decades before their time. In some cases, science has only recently discovered proof of what the poet Whitman intuited in the nineteenth century.
For instance, we learn from Whitman that all the body is mind, which is not restricted to the brain at all, and the sensations it pulls in become ingredients of a self—the subjective consciousness, or soul. Lehrer relates a series of experiments that suggest, for instance, that the hand "knows" some information before it even reaches the brain.
From Eliot, we learn that human individuality springs from the interplay of nature and nurture alike—environment and DNA together give shape to our neurons. From Escoffier, we learn the complexities of taste and smell; from Cézanne, of vision; from Stravinsky, of hearing. It turns out that the modernists were right in weaning us from objectivity and teaching us new ways to perceive the real world.
Lehrer’s point is that linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky is accurate in stating, “It is quite possible—overwhelmingly probable, one might guess—that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”
Recent research proves that early science’s positivist confidence in systems and natural laws was naïve. The mind is more haphazard, self-contradictory, and creative than any step process can map out. We are, after all, infinitely variable and free—and constantly changing. The subjective self we come to imagine as the center of the universe has no location at all. Instead, it is a process and a synthesis.
“The self is simply our work of art,” Lehrer explains, “a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity. In a world made of fragments, the self is our sole ‘theme, recurring, half remembered, half foreseen.’ If it didn’t exist, then nothing would exist.”
One reason Lehrer’s book and ideas enchant me so is that they undertake the three aspects of existence I find most compelling now—sensation, consciousness, and language. Chapter by chapter, Lehrer constructs the compelling argument that “what we call reality is merely the final draft” of what the “multiple channels” of the human mind pull together experimentally, and then, like good writers, or editors, tidy up in draft after draft, interpreting and revising our individual perceptions throughout our lives.