Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist overstates the case.

The state of the universe.
Nov. 26 2007 2:04 PM

Proust Wasn't a Neuroscientist

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

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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.