Book Review: Proust was a Neuroscientist – Jonah Lehrer

Proust was a Neuroscientist

Being a neuroscience major, I’m a sucker for anything to do with the brain, even pop science books.

This is the second time I’m reading Proust was a Neuroscientist, the first time being when I was in college. Yet again, Jonah Lehrer had me hooked.

Beautiful poetic prose coupled with what is clearly a ton of literature research on his end, Proust was a Neuroscientist is the perfect merger of art and science.

What I loved is that Jonah Lehrer so clearly believes in the marriage of art and science, how one fuels the other, and neither can live without the other. In Proust was a Neuroscientist, Lehrer forges the connection between what writers, artists, painters, musicians, and chefs intuited through their art, and how science is figuring out that they were right. What these ‘creatives’ understood and felt through their art about the mind, the brain, and what it means to be human, science is now understanding in a lab with controlled experiments and methodologies.

I loved most all the chapters, even the ones I didn’t think I would care about because I know nothing about painting or postimpressionism, for example. But Lehrer’s writing makes it clear the creatives contribution to neuroscience, and gives a background on their personal and professional context. The book ends up reading less like history and science, and more like art itself.

Though Jonah tends to have some strong opinions on certain subjects, like epigenetics and how we’re not genetically predetermined, I still enjoyed his views based on the research literature. He makes strong cases for much of what he says, and has clearly done his readings, providing in-depth bibliography and notes at the back of the book.

What makes us human, and what makes each of us his or her own human, is not simply the genes that we have buried into our base pairs, but how our cells, in dialogue with our environment, feed back to our DNA, changing the way we read ourselves. Life is a dialectic.”

Regardless of his current status as writer renegade (based on some plagiarism and misquoting), I think Jonah Lehrer is a talented writer. He writes as smoothly as an orator would speak, and I learned much from Proust was a Neuroscientist. I plan on reading more of his other books, including How we Decide and Imagine: How Creativity Works.

I don’t think I could possibly read Virginia Woolf or George Eliot the same way again. And I may never eat a madeleine without thinking of Proust and his contribution to our understanding of human memory.

Favorite quotes from Proust was a Neuroscientist:

“To have a style is to be stuck.”

“…Prions violate most of biology’s sacred rules. They are one of those annoying reminders of how much we don’t know.”

“Like a work of art, we exceed our materials. Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery. Neither truth alone is our solution, for our reality exists in plural”

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