I just finished reading Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust was a Neuroscientist.
Quick review: good book, very fun read, and I’m happy to recommend it to almost everyone. I just have one small quibble.
For the quibble to make any sense, you need to know something about my teaching. Students in all my psychology classes have to write a few paragraphs to earn “culture points.” They must consider how psychology connects to art, though the social context surrounding the event is also fair game for analysis. So my students attend a concert, visit a museum, or go to a play or dance performance and then write a paragraph connecting some aspect of psychology to their experience. I get a lot of discussion of the Gestalt grouping principles with paintings, but every semester several students make more interesting connections: noticing how a theatrical production manipulated their attention using a sudden movement, or positive reinforcement at work between live performers and their audience, or discussing how a particular aspect of memory may explain a very surprising emotional reaction to a sculpture.
My inspiration for the assignment came from a comment by Hermann von Helmholtz, who some of you will think of as a physicist (that whole conservation of energy thing), but who psychologists also get to claim for his work on color vision (the lovely trichromatic theory) and pitch perception (an approximation of the place theory). Helmholtz quotes a Goethe poem, and then writes:
…he [Goethe] may teach us how a mortal — who had indeed learned to stand even if he touched the stars with his forehead — still kept a clear eye for truth and reality. The true researcher must always have something of the artist’s insight, of the insight which led Goethe, and Leonardo da Vinci, too, to great scientific thoughts. Both artist and researcher strive — even if in different ways — towards the same goal: to discover new lawfulness. One must not, however, want to propagate idle daydreams and crazy fantasies for artistic insight. Both the true artist and the true researcher know how to work properly and how to give their work a stable form and convincing similitude.
Because I’m someone who assigns and grades discussions on the intersection of science and art every semester, I am not Jonah Lehrer’s target audience. I already agree with Lehrer’s thesis that art is an important avenue for understanding the world, and understanding our experience. Lehrer, joining Helmholtz, makes the case that science isn’t the only viable method of analysis.
Of course art and science are good for different things, but I think Lehrer is trying to write to a group of folks who may have forgotten (or never knew?) that great art offers us important insights into the world. To my mind, Lehrer overemphasizes what some of the artists might have “known,” but my guess is he does this because he is addressing an art-deprived audience. I enjoy learning about the art of Cézanne and Stravinksy, but I am really not convinced that either man gained special insight from their art about the physiological mechanisms behind early vision (edges are important!) and the flexibility of the auditory cortex. I think it’s great to be able to see the art and recognize its appeal might be related to the first analysis of the visual system; I’m just not sure why it has to be true that Cézanne “knew” that edges were critical to the mechanism.
That said, it’s a good book. So good, that I’m thinking about using it in my new seminar, tentatively named “The Ordinary, and Extraordinary, Mind”
Hermann von Helmholtz (2003). “The facts of perception.” In M. P. Munger (Ed.) The History of Psychology: Fundamental Questions. New York. Oxford University Press.