Proust Was A Neuroscientist--Jonah Lehrer


First, an apology to Mr. Lehrer: having reached the end of the book, I found that he has as little use as I do for postmodernism and its errors. That said, the tenor of the book suggests a different philosophical error--materialism. While Lehrer specifically rejects all forms of reductionism within science, it appears that he thinks that Art and Science together explain it all. While that is a very enticing view for me, it seems to lack any element of the spirit and so I am uncertain. But here again, I must admit to reading into, and perhaps reading into incorrectly, so I apologize in advance if I have misinterpreted what is, admittedly, more a lack of evidence than any explicit or clear statement.

The book is wonderful from start to finish. It is provocative and delightful in the way that it weaves the discoveries of artists--A poet, four novelists, a painter, a composer, and a chef--into a narrative about modern discoveries about how the brain works. You learn about the reality of umami, the mystery of the self, the (in)persistence of memory, the structure of language, the structure of painting and art, and the meaning of freedom. All are fascinating. You learn how the act of remembering subtly alters the memories--much as Proust described in his magnificent opus. You find out that language has deep structures that, try as you might, don't really allow for violation--sense seems to surface. You learn why you may sometimes hate something upon first hearing it and then grow gradually to enjoy it.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and important lessons I will take away from the book is simple and appropriate for Lent. Reality is objective: our consciousness of it is, to some extent, our choice. That is, the human brain is limited. It can only absorb so much. So, there is a sense in which Emperor Fredrick in Amadeus is right. The human brain can only deal with so much and then it becomes "too many notes." We can see the tree as a whole, but only when we choose to focus on them do we become conscious of individual leaves. If we pick up a fallen leaf, we may observe the whole thing against a background that has become a blur. If we look more closely, the leaf falls away and we become aware of the veining structure. All of these things are part of an objective reality, but we choose what we will become conscious of. In a sense, so it is with God. He is the ultimate Objective Reality. However, we can choose to witness His works and His power here, or we can choose to see everything as a blur and not see anything of Him. That is our choice. Lent gives us an opportunity to focus our perception, to change our consciousness of things as they are and begin to participate in them as the Really Are.

Back to Mr. Lehrer's book--a fine, substantive work--at once a scholarly study of recent findings in neuroscience by a person of taste and understanding who reads literature as well as he studies science. A rare and much-to-be-valued skill in the world today. If you have any interest in the workings of the brain and the workings of literature, art, and even cooking, you could find no better companion that Mr. Lehrer to guide you through both.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 27, 2009 7:38 AM.

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