The Frontal Cortex

More Book News

Don’t worry, the period of shameless self-promotion is almost over. But Proust Was A Neuroscientist has been in the news lately. The San Francisco Chronicle had a very kind review:

Interpreters of Woolf and Proust are legion, but Lehrer is gifted with the ability to find philosophy in science and stray bits of science buried amid the rubble of literary history. He is less critic than armchair philosopher, searching for meaning anywhere great thinkers have left their footprints. Chef Auguste Escoffier’s brainstorm about the necessity of heat for fine cooking is granted no less significance than “In Search of Lost Time,” and Lehrer shows himself equally comfortable discussing “The Rite of Spring,” Cezanne’s apples and the detection of the umami taste.


Lehrer also provides a superb reading of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in the context of music’s relationship to the brain. “Music only excites us when it makes the auditory cortex struggle to uncover its order,” notes Lehrer, and the brain can teach itself to grow accustomed to what once had sounded like random bursts of noise. The same “Rite of Spring” that inspired rioters in 1913 was, by 1940, the background music for Disney’s “Fantasia.”

In the book’s coda, Lehrer argues for a truce between art and science, a joint understanding that neither possesses a monopoly on truth. Artists must find the time to read Nature magazine, and scientists must honor the validity of experiments conducted far from the laboratory. In truth, science and art have probably grown too far apart to be reconciled. Fluency in either field requires so much dedication that the acquisition of a second, wholly separate body of knowledge is fiendishly difficult. In addition, mutual incomprehension has bred suspicions of irrelevance, or outright harmfulness. It is good, then, that translators remain – men and women capable of transmitting the efforts of one group into the language of the other. With “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” Lehrer proves himself capable of the task.

For those of you are interested (i.e., my mother) I also had a very fun interview with Christopher Lydon, of Open Source. (I’ve long been a fan of Mr. Lydon’s work, so it was a really fun chat for me.) And there’s an hour long interview about the book over at KUSP. Robert Pollie and I talk about everything from Stephen Colbert to Hubel and Weisel.


  1. #1 peggy
    November 30, 2007

    The critical buzz on your book has been largely positive, so you should be proud (and so should your mother!). I can’t wait to read it.
    Speaking of reading and Proust, I just picked up the French version of How Proust Can Change Your Life (Comment Proust peut changer votre vie) to read for my French book club discussion. As I read the first 50 pages, I got to wondering if you have read it and, if so, what you thought of it, especially de Botton’s and Proust’s thoughts on the subjective experience of reading.

  2. #2 Jonah
    November 30, 2007

    I’m a big fan of How Proust Can Change Your Life. I think it’s extremely witty and fun and thought-provoking. And i also admire de botton’s larger method, which is to treat the novel as a vessel of relevant wisdom, and not just as a pretty story.

  3. #3 peggy
    November 30, 2007

    And i also admire de botton’s larger method, which is to treat the novel as a vessel of relevant wisdom, and not just as a pretty story.

    …which is exactly what Proust hoped for, and did not get, in his lifetime. I like the playful and generous way that de Botton corrects the many misperceptions about Proust, both inside France and outside.

    He is probably the most misunderstood, and least read, famous author of the 20th century.

    Once, with a group of liberal arts academics I played the parlor game where you admit the one book you feel you should have read, and sometimes pretend to have read, but in fact have never been able to read. A La Recherche du Temps Perdu won hands down–against a lot of stiff competition, I might add.

  4. #4 peggy
    November 30, 2007

    If you haven’t already, check out The Fray that follows the review of your book. One guy apparently took your title literally, and now believes that your central claim is that Proust was, in fact, a neuroscientist.
    It seems that if nothing else, your book and reviews of it are encouraging the former philosophy majors (and would-be artists) and former science majors out there to wake up from their dogmatic slumber and dogmatically throw Molotov cocktails at the guys on the other side of a great abyss. It’s such fun to read!

  5. #5 peggy
    November 30, 2007

    i meant the slate review

  6. #6 Ata Khan
    December 5, 2007

    This is awesome. I am so happy to have come across your book this morning at the local Borders. As a fan of both science and art, I’ve been thinking about the questions raised in your book for quite some time. In my own studies, I have found that James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” in all its complexity, predated and anticipated the advancements we see today in complexity science and at Santa Fe. Joyce uses language as his agent in creating a Dublin that feels uncompromisingly realistic. His work very easily fits the principles of complex adaptive systems.

    Also, I recently finished Yvgeny Zamyatin’s “We,” the supposed precursor to “Brave New World” and “1984,” and also couldn’t help notice its relation to complexity (“Ulysses” and “We” were first drafted at nearly the same time, 1918 and 1919, respectively).

    At any rate, I have started reading your book (I want to finish it but finals are coming up), and am happy to find somebody take the time to comprehensively research such convergence. G

    Thank you.

  7. #7 Matthew Putman
    December 6, 2007

    I stayed up most of the night reading the book last night. it is a terrific book. Congratulations.

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