Thumbnail book review: Proust was a Neuroscientist

i-47b09674ecf2b84eb0e7dca6bb149791-proust.jpgI 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.


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"I get a lot of discussion of the Gestalt grouping principles with paintings"

This sorta thing happens a lot with people lacking knowledge of the arts -- i.e., those whose only experience of art is the art history museum. People get locked into the surface visual nature of the art and don't see the other aspects. Symbols, language, meaning, ritual, emotions, relationships, human nature, communication, sociology, politics, and fun are all part of the artistic palette.

I find the easiest way to break people out of there tired purely formalist perspective is to tell them to approach art like a it's a form of communication (either that or introduce them to performance art). Often the artist is attempting to communicate something to the viewer; sometimes they are selective with the type of viewer and sometimes they are just talking to themselves. Alternately, they are attempting to engender communication or connection between members of the audience.

The palette that the artist uses (color, shape, size, movement, position, symbols, emotion, words, beauty, shock, humor) are all tools for creating a communication that falls outside what we typically recognize as language. All of which is ripe for discovery and criticism from a psychological perspective.

I found it superficial, with analogies stretched beyond breaking point.

By ian findlay (not verified) on 21 Dec 2007 #permalink

Thanks for this review! I was just thinking yesterday about picking up this book (in particular because of Proust, who I've been trying to read for a while anyway). I've also seen it mentioned that some of the claims in the book are stretched much to far, but I like the idea of the artist as a naive researcher - by their product, exposing some of the mechanisms behind our interaction with art and the world. The recent cover story in Seed, "Is the future of science art?" addressed some of these questions as well. I'm hoping that cross-pollination occurs into art as well, whereby artists address the means by which their art is effective...

I just started to read Lehrer's book. I very much like the basic idea of the book but I can also see the point of sometimes overstretching a single concept. Still I think it makes a good read so far.

Your remark, Greta, about the necessity for the artist to know, reminded me of the great essay by Heinrich von Kleist about consciousness (here is a version in English and here the original in German, I don't know if the English translation is any good, I guess it must be difficult to translate Kleist).

It might not be an necessary condition to know but I think Kleist has a point that art is done on different level if it is conscious in that sense.

By Don Quijote (not verified) on 23 Dec 2007 #permalink

thanks for the review, greta. I'm a grad student in cog psy and thought the book was really wonderful. very thought-provoking and well-written, even if it showed the ocassional rhetorical excess. but i was one of the people you talk about who never thought about art as giving us insight into the mind and world, and now i do. i guess i should have had you as a professor!