The Frontal Cortex

Art and Science

Here’s Junot Diaz, talking about his writing process:

It was an incredibly difficult struggle. I tell a lot of young people I work with that nothing should be more inspirational than my dumb ass. It took me 11 years to struggle through one dumb book, and every day you just want to give up. But you don’t find out you’re an artist because you do something really well. You find out you’re an artist because when you fail you have something within you–strength or belief or just craziness–that picks you back up again.

One of the criticisms of my book, and it’s a criticism I take rather seriously, is that the artistic process lacks the rigor of the scientific process, and so it’s thus meaningless to talk about the “discoveries” of artists. If an artist happens to stumble upon a scientific truth about the brain before science…well, then, that’s just dumb luck. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

On the one hand, this criticism is hard to deny. Proust didn’t publish in peer-review journals. He didn’t perform experiments in a lab. (At the start of the 20th century, which is when Proust was writing his novel, the most “rigorous” psychology experiments involved the measurement of nerve reaction times, so perhaps it’s better that Proust stuck to fiction.) He obviously was not a neuroscientist, since neuroscience had yet to exist.

But I think this criticism also gets something fundamentally wrong. One of the things that surprised me (and my surprise was quite naive) was just how hard it was for all of the artists in my book to make their art. The act of creation was an arduous struggle. Proust spent more than ten years writing In Search of Lost Time and even then he insisted on making numerous last minute changes to the text. Cezanne would spend years painting the same Provencal mountain, as he deliberated over each brushstroke. For Virginia Woolf, the act of writing was so intense and draining that she would often relapse into her mental illness after finishing a draft. And so on.

One of the reasons the artistic process was so difficult is that these artists weren’t simply describing stuff – they were investigating stuff. George Eliot, for instance, famously described her novels as a “a set of experiments in life.” Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, said that in her new novel the “psychology should be done very realistically.” Whitman worked in Civil War hospitals and corresponded for years with the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. (He also kept up with phrenology, the brain science of his day.) Gertrude Stein worked in William James’ Harvard psychology lab, then went to med-school at Johns Hopkins where she worked in a neuroanatomy lab. She would later say that her art was inspired by some of these experiments. (Her first piece of published writing was actually a science article on “automatic writing”.) My point is that it’s easy to falsely dismiss the artistic process as lacking rigor or diligence, to pretend that artists are merely trying to come up with creations that are entertaining or pretty.

Obviously, a novel makes a different set of epistemic claims than an experiment. Nevertheless, I think many artists, and certainly all of the artists I talk about in my book, are still passionately interested in reality. They want their fiction to feel authentic, to accurately capture some hard to capture element of human existence. That’s why good art is so hard to make. Just ask Junot Diaz.


  1. #1 Rachel
    April 7, 2008

    I have not read your book yet but hope to soon. Thanks for this blog.
    Contemporary artists ask questions. This is the practice of making in a studio, on the street, on a computer, in our daily lives. I suspect it was true for those you write about as well. Though today the product may be many different things, the process, which is really what is about for many of us, is about working through to the next question. It is where art and science meet for me.

  2. #2 peter
    April 7, 2008

    boy it’s refreshing to hear someone quantify this in a reasonable manner.

    it becomes so hard to explain to someone how hard that really is. thank you.

  3. #3 Barbara Czaczynski
    April 7, 2008

    I loved “Proust was a Neuroscientist.” I was intrigued by the title as well as the yummy cookie on the cover. The juxtaposition of the two was impossible to pass up.

    Staying with the food theme, I found your book as satisfying as sampling a fine box of chocolates. With none of the calories.

    The chapter on Proust had me laughing because I have of late been using a memory game at night when I have trouble sleeping. I try to remember as many pleasant memories from my childhood as I can. It chases away the cares of the day. I find that with each repeated try little gaps start filling in.

    I’m also a sucker for smells in form of bath products and candles. They are very soothing and now I know why.

    Your book helped explain much about this memory process and why some things just leap out of nowhere.

    I enjoy your style of writing and the veiled (and not so veiled) humor here and there. A book well worth your time and effort.

    Great read.

  4. #4 Jarret
    April 8, 2008

    I’ve read a bunch of reviews for your book, and it seems like the reviewer either got it, or didn’t. But what I did notice the more scientific background someone had, the less likely they were to open up to your sort of book (ie, that ridiculous Nature review by McManus… who is that guy anyway???).

    But what I’ve noticed from experience in the lab is that sometimes it’s difficult for a scientist to find the inherent beauty in the things they do. If anyone has ever done immunos and confocal imaging, its readily apparent that the process of producing a good, clear image is much more of an art that relies on gut instinct rather than cut and dry protocol, or the rigorous “methodology, the experimentation, the data and the hypothesis testing.”

    Maybe we get so bogged down in trying to produce data that we forget the most important aspect of what we’re doing is the underlying process. For better or worse, more data (with intelligent interpretation, of course) leads to more funding, especially in biomedical research labs that are looking for direct applications for their work, which is sadly where most “neuroscientists” call home.

    But after reading your book, it seems like we’re not all that different, except scientists end up with the Pavlovian reflex that good numbers means that the NIH sends them food stamps for another year.

  5. #5 Steve Marr
    April 8, 2008

    Very interesting discussion. As a scientist ( fifteen years in food microbiology and food chemistry), exhibited artist (BFA Drawing and Painting) and published author (one publication and a developing area of interest), I find the sensibility of the artist and the scientist to be very similar. I however find the cultures which support them very different. I think the way “hunches” present themselves to artists and scientists is very similar. I can offer two examples. I was in a book discussion group. We were discussing Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady.” An image of a rose came into my mind’s eye and I then made the statement that the character of Isabel is like a rose that first blooms and then fades. I turned a visual mental image into a metaphor. Similarly, I was waiting tables at a restaurant in the early eighties while going to art school. The hunch intuitively and spontaneously came to me that whales and hippos are related phylogenetically. DNA research has subsequently substantiated this hunch. I think the same process is in operation in both examples.Neuroscience is just at the threshold to explain this process.It involves opening up to primary processes (in mental imagery it is the visual cortex) and relaxation of the executive process (in the prefrontal cortex).In the arts the emotional vector is of prominence. This is downplayed in science although now the importance of an emotional component to intelligence is being recognized. The emotions of a scientist formulating an elegant hypothesis and an artist realizing a creation are not that different.What I call “scientific awe” and “artistic inspiration” are not all that different. Jonah’s proposal to develop a “fourth culture” is particularly welcome. I think individuals on both sides of the fence would find they are not that dissimilar and the conversation which ensues could be both productive and enlightening.

  6. #6 beecee
    April 8, 2008

    I will take Chopin over Stravinsky. It’s true that dissonance can be a neurological adaptation, however, so can traffic noise or disfunctional or abusive behavior in a family, or a noisy work environment, or a war setting, or garlic ice cream. The ugly can be adapted to but, for me, never strikes a satisfying chord. Different and ugly isn’t always better and isn’t always art.

  7. #7 JD Johnson
    April 8, 2008

    I recently read the book and found it illuminating and inspiring. And Mr. Lehrer is right, artists do not get enough credit for the rigour they apply to their work. I barely consider myself an artist, but, having recently completed a stage play, I was struck by how much time I spent rewriting dialogue just to evoke the right tenor of emotions and motivations that would allow my work to stay consistent with the characters and to advance the narrative. It really was a process of calibrating, testing, and revising. I can only imagine the level of rigour employed by Woolf and Proust to write novels entirely consisting of subterranean memories and emotions. The cliche “suffering for one’s art” doesn’t seem out of reach.

    As for the previous comment about Stravinsky, I wouldn’t necessarily equate “Rite of Spring” with traffic noise. That analogy is apropo with some music (Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” comes to mind, as do some of the later Scott Walker albums), but Stravinksy was not just constructing a random slapdash of noises. He was very intentionally grouping melodies, counter-melodies, and atonal sounds that had never been assimilated in traditional symphonic music and creating from them a new soundscape. If we have a negative visceral reaction to this music, it’s not because what we’re hearing upsets some external objective standard of harmony. Rather, it has much to do with what we define as harmony based on our past listening experiences. As Mr. Lehrer pointed out in his book, once the public ear became trained to Stravinsky’s avante garde experiments, his music grew in acclaim and was even adopted into popular culture.

  8. #8 Professor Joel S. Kahn
    April 8, 2008

    This post provides a welcome opportunity to revisit Proust was a Neuroscientist for another reason, and that is that it allows us to ask whether there might be other areas which might benefit from the “third culture” perspective which the book brings to bear on the relationship between art and science, domains which many, including probably many artists and scientists, have long considered to be largely separate spheres of human thought and creativity. If Jonah is looking for an equally intriguing topic for his next book – presuming he does not already have enough on his plate! – might I, as a socio-cultural anthropologist, propose the topic of what Emile Durkheim called ‘conscience collective’? There has been some debate over how best to translate this term, but for reasons which I want briefly to explore I will translate it here, perhaps somewhat contentiously, as collective or group mind.
    Durkheim was obviously not the first to advance a notion of mind which transcended the individual. But while it may have been common for many nineteenth century figures to write about group minds with distinctive emergent or transcendent properties (think for example of all that interest in the spirit of history, or more concretely in crowds, or ‘primitive’ minds), which required minds to be viewed collectively rather than as separate entities bounded by the skulls or skins of individualised human beings, from the early 20th century such notions were gradually abandoned or discredited, such that even Durkheim himself was compelled to drop his term in favour of the far more innocuous-sounding ‘collective representation’.
    There were a number of related reasons for this development. For Durkheim himself it was the difficulty of conceiving of some sort of collective consciousness among the increasingly individualised members of highly differentiated modern societies. It was just such a renewed spirit of individualism that led 20th century sociologists to reject the idea of the mind of a ‘crowd’. It is commonplace now for most students of modern cultural anthropology, along with many neuroscientists, to dismiss any notion of group mind by pointing out, that we can never really know what’s in someone else’s mind or share their unique experience of the world, a feat which the notion of group mind seems to support. So much for John Edwards!
    But there is probably a more important reason why 20th century cultural anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and biologists abandoned the search for emergent or transcendent qualities of mind, and that is that it seemed impossible for such things to have any physical or material basis. This is what prompted anthropologists for example to dismiss Durkheim’s ‘conscience collective’ as ‘reification’, and to abandon assumptions of biologically-determined inferiority that underpinned concepts such as the primitive mind.
    The result – an emerging ‘two cultures’ division between those who approach mind from a ‘scientific’ perspective by focussing on the study of the characteristics of brains as physically (genetically or chemically) pre-determined, ‘really’ existing entities and those who approach mind from a ‘humanities’-oriented perspective which focuses on culture or meaning-making which is independent of and irreducible to purely physical processes taking place in individual human brains. After all, if brains were independent, physically/genetically pre-determined entities, how can one understand in purely ‘scientific’ terms the great diversity of human cultural practice?
    Of course there are those who have attempted to bridge the gap. But many of these have failed either because they declare one or the other approach irrelevant to a ‘true’ understanding of mind or because they do much the same thing merely by reducing one to the other. In other words they have failed I think because, by ignoring the insights of either the scientific or the humanities-oriented approach, they have merely reproduced the two cultures divide, thereby failing to reap the benefits that a ‘third culture’ perspective such as Lehrer’s brings.
    What might such a third culture approach look like in this instance and what might it now tell us about problematic notions such as collective or group minds? Here of course is the rub, since like most others I am the product of a two cultures tradition within my own discipline, and therefore inevitably naďve with respect to the science. However, my own doubtless superficial reading of at least some recent neuroscience (to say nothing of Jonah’s book) would lead me to believe that there is much to be gained by looking at the interface between the phenomenological study of intersubjectivity that takes place in my own discipline and the study of the physical processes involved in cognition, memory, and even consciousness (the way we experience and ‘feel’ about the world) by modern neuroscientists. Work by the latter on what I can only call the amazing plasticity of the brain, and by the former on the extent to which even the consciousness of our individual selfhood is a product of intersubjective, often intensely empathic social experience, suggests to me that while we may not want to resurrect classical notions of homogeneous group minds, we may nonetheless be in a position once again to investigate whether and in what ways the processes that we think of as mind-like – cognition, emotion, even consciousness – take place not only within the ‘prisons’ of individually-embodied brains but in some kind of synchronicity across socially shared spaces of human intersubjective interaction.
    What about it Jonah? An idea for your next book?

  9. #9 beecee
    April 9, 2008

    In response to the above post, this sounds like Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. I think therin lies the third culture. Can’t prove it though.

    As to Woolf, Lehrer doesn’t name her mental illness. As described–periods of depression followed by great activity–it sounds like bipolar disorder–characterized in the manic phase by racing thoughts. She would have had more material than the average person with which to study the fleeting and mercurial behavior of the mind.

    As to Stravinsky, Disney also used Tschiakovsky, Saint-Seans, and even American ragtime(Steamboat Willie). As a child I developed a life-long taste for this music.

  10. #10 laurelin
    April 9, 2008

    I recently saw a presentation by the director of the SAT in montreal where he talked about how we’re transitioning into this period of time where artists are becoming more respected as skilled professionals and not merely evaluated subjectively on their individual outputs. For me, it put into a new light all those conversations in art school about the ‘artistic process’ or the ‘process of painting’… I used to think it meant that the artist would sit in a vaccuum and try to hone in on some abstract concept by being totally immersed in their minds- wankery, pretty much. However, more and more, I realize that it’s about research, acquiring skills, and figuring out the best way to actually translate an abstract concept into some kind of tangible form. The ultimate output format is not as important as the fact that SOMETHING is actually contributed to reality. Once it’s out there, someone else can think about it, and perhaps put it to use.

    In a way I think that real scientists should be the ones recognizing the value of artists’ work- they get shit all the time from engineers who think that basic science research is practically useless because the output is so raw and unusable. It’s basically the same thing. Creative work is just undervalued.

  11. #11 Andrew
    April 10, 2008

    I just tonight finished reading Proust Was A Neuroscientist, and first off, thanks! That was all around very interesting. I’d just finished reading the first volume of In Search of Lost Time in January (part of the reason I picked up your book) and I plan to read Ulysses later this year, though now I think I’ll add Mrs. Dalloway and Saturday to this list to be read directly afterwards. You mention Saturday specifically as an example of the good kind of “third culture”, but I was curious what other novels (or other works of culture!), if any, you think fit into this category. I think Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams is a great book for anyone that likes literature and already knows a little bit about relativity, but I don’t know if it really explores or teaches. (Maybe it does, and I just wasn’t looking for that as I read it.)

  12. #12 Lee Pirozzi
    April 30, 2008

    If only people would spend more time reading than criticizing, they might learn something enabling them to
    enlighten themselves about that which they have professed is wrong.

  13. #13 mirc
    March 17, 2009

    You mention Saturday specifically as an example of the good kind of “third culture”, but I was curious what other novels (or other works of culture!), if any, you think fit into this category.

  14. #14 sohbet
    March 17, 2009

    In a way I think that real scientists should be the ones recognizing the value of artists’ work- they get shit all the time from engineers who think that basic science research is practically useless because the output is so raw and unusable. It’s basically the same thing. Creative work is just undervalued.

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