Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

by Jonah Lehrer

I actually took notes while reading this book, about all the things that were annoying me in it. I think, in retrospect, that I was cranky for unrelated reasons, and I've since decided not to waste so much effort on what will essentially be a negative review, so I'm ditching my notes.

Anyway, in the introduction the author mentions Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist who wrote the absolutely brilliant book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Lehrer then basically takes Damsio's idea (of drawing parallels between current discoveries in neurophysiology/neuropsychology and the work of a 17th century philosopher), steals it and waters it down, and tries to apply it to an array of other non-scientists, such as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Walt Whitman.

I really wanted to like this book, but I think the author's stretching a bit. He also has this annoying habit (and I realize I'm picking nits) of saying that s0-and-so "discovered" such-and-such neurological fact, rather than saying the writer or artist intuited or intimated or expressed something about the brain that we now know to be true. No matter how well an artist's work synchs up with what we know about how the brain works, it really comes down to us and our hindsight; even a writer as scientifically inclined as George Eliot wasn't consciously contemplating neuroscience in the way we understand it today. (A philosopher, such as Spinoza, is another matter entirely; philosophers, in pondering the phenomenology of human mental and emotional states, really are studying neuroscience in a non-biological fashion.)

It's not a terrible book. I might even have liked it if I hadn't already read so much about neuroscience and philosophy.

No comments: