Monday, 23 October 2017

#32 A book about psychology


Proust Was A Neuroscientist  - Jonah Lehrer

This book has a fascinating title, a promising start but sadly, it was a disappointment by the end.
The author who has had some experience working in neuroscience laboratories and that too under some of the best minds in the field, sets out to explain in this book how select artists, writers, musicians and painters, anticipated many discoveries of our brain functioning through their work. It was an extremely interesting premise to begin with. It has always been a fascinating juxtaposition - art & science.

In each chapter, the author, explains a bit of the background of the artist under study and connects their work to some aspect of neuroscience. For instance, he begins with how Walt Whitman had predicted, in fact, been absolutely sure that emotions are generated by the body -  a discovery made much later by neuroscientists.

“In fact, it was not until 1875, twenty years after Whitman first sang of electric bodies (in I Sing the Body Electric that it was discovered that he was right, the nervous system actually conveys electric current.”

Similarly, startling assertions are made about a variety of famous people of the 19th and 20th c including George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne (painter), Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf etc. To each personality he has assigned a particular concept of neuroscience like language, memory, sight, taste etc. Though a lot of their work itself is used to explain the connections he is making, it felt a bit too tedious and if I may say so, too repetitive, to  be fully enjoyable.

Admittedly there were a few parts I did enjoy – my favourite was about the artist Paul Cezanne who I had only vaguely heard of before. Reading his analysis of Cezanne’s ground-breaking technique of post-impressionistic art was highly fascinating. His art apparently wasn’t showing us what he saw (as the impressionists did) but rather as how we saw it. It intrigued me to read up more about Cezanne and have since found a new found appreciation for his art.

I am no scientist, but I strongly felt he was getting his science wrong or citing it imprecisely for a certain dramatic effect. His literary interpretations didn’t make much impression on me either, probably because I have read these works being analyzed before. In fact, his chapter on George Eliot, the way he was trying to connect her philosophy of writing to the “freedom of biology” was quite far-fetched, and not at all convincing.

The chapters on Whitman and Woolf were definitely better written. Essentially the author is persuading us to consider and put into practice a ‘fourth culture’, in which science can enlighten art and art can enlighten science. However, by equating the prolific and incessant writer Marcel Proust to a neuroscientist (which requires years of practice, precise calculations, and incessant understanding of the human mind)   makes Lehrer guilty of the very ‘reductionism’ of science which he is appealing against.

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