In this technology-driven age, it’s tempting to believe that science can solve every mystery. After all, science has cured countless diseases and even sent humans into space. But as Jonah Lehrer argues in this sparkling debut, science is not the only path to knowledge. In fact, when it comes to understanding the brain, art got there first.
Taking a group of artistsa painter, a poet, a chef, a composer, and a handful of novelistsLehrer shows how each one discovered an essential truth about the mind that science is only now rediscovering. We learn, for example, how Proust first revealed the fallibility of memory; how George Eliot discovered the brain’s malleability; how the French chef Escoffier discovered umami (the fifth taste); how Cézanne worked out the subtleties of vision; and how Gertrude Stein exposed the deep structure of languagea full half-century before the work of Noam Chomsky and other linguists. It’s the ultimate tale of art trumping science.
More broadly, Lehrer shows that there’s a cost to reducing everything to atoms and acronyms and genes. Measurement is not the same as understanding, and art knows this better than science does. An ingenious blend of biography, criticism, and first-rate science writing, Proust Was a Neuroscientist urges science and art to listen more closely to each other, for willing minds can combine the best of both, to brilliant effect.
Two venerable and interconnected philosophical problems permeate Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer -- a fascinating, succinct (197-page), if sometimes over-ambitious examination of the ways in which the work of Walt Whitman, Paul CÚzanne, Igor Stravinsky, and five other artists anticipated some modern discoveries about the brain. Those two problems are the mystery of the conscious self -- how and why it is we are aware of our own being in the world -- and the question of free will.