The Frontal Cortex


First, the Hotel St. George Press, a really cool literary publishing group in Brooklyn (where else?) was kind enough to ask me a few questions:

Heather McCalden: Would you mind relaying a bit about your experiences in the lab, the kitchen, and the writer’s desk – how they may have fed each other, for instance? Have the commonalities (assuming they exist) provoked any of the ideas in Proust was a Neuroscientist?

Jonah Lehrer: A few years before I started working in a lab, back when I was working as a weekend prep cook in a restaurant for gas money, I had this epiphany about chefs: they actually know what they’re talking about. When you first start working in a kitchen, there are all these idiosyncratic rules that make no sense. You’ve got to chop the onion like this for this dish and like that for that dish. It all seemed so arbitrary. But then, over time, I realized that the culinary rules had a real logic to them. Even though the chefs couldn’t explain why you needed to cut an onion this particular way – it probably has something to do with the breakdown of sulfuric acid and the carmelization of sugars – they had found the best possible technique. In other words, they were intuitive chemists. Even as a lowly prep cook, I was impressed by the way a body of culture could build up this implicit knowledge purely through experience and practice. So I guess I was prepared in advance for my insight about Proust being a neuroscientist, which I had while reading Proust in a lab. (I had developed the bad habit of reading novels while waiting for my experiments to finish. Before Proust, I had been on a six months-long Bellow jag.)

And then I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Marcus about his elegant new book, Kluge:

LEHRER: What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve found in your years as a scientist? What data didn’t you expect?

MARCUS: It’s just amazing how engaged babies are. Your average six-month-old human is–by comparison to your average two-day old elephant–pretty ineffectual [physically]. Humans simply don’t get up and walk the moment they crawl out of the womb, unlike newborns of so many other species. But study after study has shown that baby humans know a heck of lot about how the world works. They have, for example, a fairly firm grasp of basic physics, and they’re constantly looking around them trying to understand the world.

In my own lab, for example, we found that your average seven-month-old baby can learn a basic language-like grammatical rule in the space of two minutes; if we give a baby a series of sentences like la ta ta, mi na na; she can pick up the underlying grammar (ABB) structure right away; by now, several other labs have replicated this basic finding. And it’s amazing; we’re not paying the babies who are in these experiments, and two minutes is not a very long time, but the babies can’t help themselves. They want to know what’s going on, and they work hard at trying to figure it out.