The Frontal Cortex

Slate

I’m quickly learning that these webmagazines really don’t like my book. This review, however, is actually rather thoughtful. Daniel Engber of Slate begins by pointing out that neuroscientists are constantly quoting Proust:

My career as a grad student in neuroscience was filled with these obligatory madeleine moments: It seemed like every talk, lecture, presentation, or paper on the biology of memory began with a dip into Swann’s Way. An extended passage from the book appears in the brain researcher’s standard reference manual, Principles of Neural Science, and Proustian inscriptions routinely make their way into peer-reviewed science journals (PDF) and book chapters. Even the most sublunary findings–a study of cultured mouse cells or the neuromuscular junction of a fly–might earn the literary flourish of a line or two, projected above an audience on a PowerPoint slide: “I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. … ”

How surprising, then, to discover that biologists have forgotten all about Proust. That’s the leaky premise of science journalist Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. “As scientists dissect our remembrances into a list of molecules and brain regions,” he writes, “they fail to realize they are channeling a reclusive French novelist.” If only they knew!

I think there’s a big difference between using Proust as kind of literary ornamentation and actually reading Swann’s Way as a guide to the mechanisms of memory. Like Engber, I’m well aware that lots of science papers quote Proust right before they talk about CREB or some other acronym. (I actually pushed for a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to be included on a paper I was involved with: “Life is not what we experience, it is what we remember and how we remember in order to retell it.” My wish was vetoed.) While I think this sort of trite name-dropping is often an implicit acknowledgment that Proust said some really interesting (and surprising) things about memory, I was trying to get beyond such a superficial reading of the art. In my book, I wanted to see if there were any real connections between science and these oft-quoted artists.

He then goes on to criticize my interpretation of neurogenesis:

In Chapter 2, for example, Lehrer credits novelist George Eliot with rejecting hard-core scientific determinism and affirming free will. In her fiction, she discovered that the human mind is malleable, always changing. Neuroscientists only verified this idea many decades later, he says, with the discovery of “adult neurogenesis,” or the birth of new neurons in a mature brain.

In fact, one has nothing to do with the other. It’s true that until the 1990s, most neuroscientists didn’t think the brain could generate new cells past childhood. But that doesn’t mean they thought “the fate of the mind was sealed,” as Lehrer puts it. Of course our brains can change: How else would we learn new skills or form new memories? The neurogenesis debate–more technical than philosophical–was more concerned with the question of how this change occurs, as opposed to whether it happens at all. Do new cells pop up out of nowhere or does our cortex merely reshuffle the connections among cells that are already there? It’s hard to believe that George Eliot had any stake in that question.

In my book, I use neurogenesis not to diminish plasticity but as the ultimate example of plasticity. (I also talk about Mriganka Sur’s work with ferrets and a host of other studies.) And while George Eliot obviously didn’t have a stake in the neurogenesis debate of the mid-1990′s (although she might have been pleased with the end result), I think she did have a stake in the larger debate over biological determinism, which got hot and heavy in the 19th century. (I contrast the discovery of plasticity, for example, with Thomas Huxley’s famous remark that “We are conscious automata.”) When Eliot declared that the mind “is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing” – she was on to something interesting.

The comes a critique which I probably deserve:

Many of the breakthroughs attributed to the artists profiled in the book seem to have been prefigured–or even stated outright–by contemporary theorists like William James. Indeed, the architect of American psychology lurks in almost every chapter: In a discussion of Cezanne’s discovery that the mind fabricates an image of the world from our sensory impressions, Lehrer quotes from James’ Pragmatism, saying substantially the same thing; when he explains how Woolf discovered our splintered consciousness, it’s James again, on the “mutations of the self”; a chapter on Gertrude Stein’s discovery of the language instinct begins with her work in William James’ laboratory at Harvard; and so on. (For a discussion of James’ considerable influence on Proust, you’ll have to look elsewhere [PDF].) Midway through the book, I started to wonder if a better title would have been James Was a Psychologist.

Engber should have seen my first draft! It had even more James references. But there’s a reason I’m constantly quoting James, and it’s not just because he’s so quotable. It’s because I think he represents a science of mind that has all but disappeared. Consider James’ Principles of Psychology, his epic textbook. The first eight chapters describe the brain in the conventional third person terms of modern science. But then, with Chapter 9, everything changes. The first line of that chapter, “The Stream of Thought,” really says it all: “We now begin our study of the mind from within.”

It’s that first-person perspective – that interest in experience itself – that defined James’ approach to the mind. Not only was our self-conscious experience a valuable source of scientific data, James believed that it was the most valuable source. He endorsed an approach called radical empiricism, which sought to solve the mind not by breaking it apart but by trying to study it “from the inside”. Alas, this approach has all but disappeared from modern science. In one sense, I was simply trying to show that artists were the original radical pragmatists. By immersing themselves in experience, they had discovered a few perdurable truths.

Engber’s conclusion ends up in the obvious place:

The grand project of the field [neuroscience] 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.

But that was the whole point of the book! Proust also wanted to figure out how, exactly, his memory worked. Whitman also wanted to understand how his body and soul were connected. Woolf also wanted to understand her stream of consciousness. These artists weren’t simply describing stuff – they were investigating stuff. To suggest otherwise is to impose our modern cultural divide onto the art of the past. More importantly, I think it will cause science to miss out on some relevant wisdom embedded in our great art. It’s time to stop reusing that same stale Proust quote about the cookie and actually take these artistic investigations seriously…

Comments

  1. #1 Steve
    November 26, 2007

    Don’t worry about it. The problem with making an original argument is that it takes people a little while to catch up. I really enjoyed your book. It was tremendously thought-provoking.

  2. #2 alice
    November 27, 2007

    David Chalmers says that neuroscience has a good chance of answering the questions of how the mind works. He calls these the easy questions.

    He still holds that these investigations haven’t come close to answering the hard question of how experience emerges.

    When I was a kid I was confused about this big thing I was experiencing, otherwise known as life. I thought that everyone knew something I didn’t. I looked to the culture to provide me with answers and generally got pretty shallow replies.

    Then I took to reading. Of course there were adult authors, like Salinger, who were casting their memory back to their youth and offering up insights.

    It wasn’t until I was an adult and began reading literature that I discovered the world of authors who were having a dialogue about what it is to be human and expressing it from “the inside” as James said.

    What a wonderful discovery and grand adventure.

    Who could not be captivated by the ingenuity of “Mrs Dalloway” in describing the inner dialogue and who would not then be emboldened to listen to and validate one’s own inner dialogue and then discover something about the human condition because of it?

    The whole point is that by looking deeply and being brutally honest one may just be able to discover those deep answers for oneself. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility and it doesn’t require a PHD.

  3. #3 Pawlie Kokonuts
    November 27, 2007

    Most people who quote Proust have never read more than an excerpt, I’m sure. (In fact, this can be said of Freud, Marx, Adam Smith, etc. ad nauseam.) I confess I don’t understand Proust in terms of character or plot line (nor do I care), but your book immediately resonated with me because I always understood that Proust was saying: Memory is illusory, subjective, and unreliable. My favorite Proustian term? He refers to the body as a “nervous envelope.”

  4. #4 Leisureguy
    November 29, 2007

    I haven’t yet read your book, but I do have a quote regarding Proust in my book, and I thought you might enjoy it. It’s by A.J. Liebling:

    The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s steam kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book. This is capable of expression by the formula TMB, for Taste > Memory > Book. Some time ago, when I began to read a book called The Food of France, by Waverley Root, I had an inverse experience: BMT, for Book > Memory > Taste. Happily, the tastes that The Food of France re-created for me—small birds, stewed rabbit, stuffed tripe, Cote Rotie, and Tavel—were more robust than that of the madeleine, which Larousse defines as “a light cake made with sugar, flour, lemon juice, brandy, and eggs.” (The quantity of brandy in a madeleine would not furnish a gnat with an alcohol rub.) In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sauteed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.

    If only, eh? :)