My Awkward Introduction

Writing the first line of your first blog is even harder than starting to write a book. Blogging is an instantaneous conversation, and nobody wants to begin a conversation with a bad beginning. (Plus, you can always change the first line of your book, at least until it's published, and that takes forever.) So I'm nervous right now, and probably too self-conscious. Hopefully, that will fade with time and verbosity.

I'll begin by introducing myself. If you're on scienceblogs.com, you've probably heard of Seed Magazine. I'm a staff writer. Over the last few years, I've had the pleasure of profiling Brian Greene, writing about cellular disorder, explaining neurogenesis, and, most recently, talking about Joan Roughgarden and lesbian macaques. My first article for Seed - way back in 2003 - was entitled "Proust Was A Neuroscientist," and, by some ridiculous stroke of good fortune, I ended up writing a book with that same title. (It will be published by Houghton-Mifflin next year.)

What's the book about? The title isn't ironic. I actually argue that Proust anticipated some fundamental discoveries in modern neuroscience. But he wasn't the only artist with prophetic powers. I also argue that Walt Whitman, George Eliot, August Escoffier, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf (basically a Who's Who of modernism) also anticipated the shiny new facts of neuroscience. I'm sure I'll gradually reveal what scientific truths these artists discovered, but before I do, I'm curious if any readers would like to hazard a few guesses. As I've been writing this book, I've gradually begun to believe my own interpretations (of both the art and the science), and that is always a dangerous thing. It's easy to forget that Proust didn't just write about memory and madelines. So I'm hoping for a few reader hypotheses that will jar me out of my closed-mindedness, and remind me of all the other interpretations that I forgot to write about.

In the near future, as I slowly unfurl my life story (it's brief, don't worry), I hope to explain how I came up with such a far-fetched idea.

More like this

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…
If you want to learn about umami, glutamate, veal stock and Auguste Escoffier, check out this story about Chapter 3 of my book on Morning Edition. It was a special thrill getting to do this with Robert Krulwich, who has long been one of my favorite science reporters.
A note to readers: For the next few weeks, this blog is going on a book tour. So if you're averse to self-promotion and blatant shows of immodesty (I promise to also link to the negative reviews!), or just aren't interested in Proust Was A Neuroscientist, then I kindly suggest you check back in…
I visited the Cambridge Google offices last month and talked about Escoffier, umami, Kanye West and the plasticity of dopamine neurons:

I can't recall the details off hand, but I recall when reading Aristotle, that he wrote about some of the same concepts that Sigmund Freud later developed in his theory of psychoanalysis. So I would not be surprised at all if many authors had similar ideas that merely had to wait until science caught up.

Thanks for your comment. Aristotle was indeed an adept student of human nature and has left us with a treasure trove of wisdom. (See Jonathan Haidt's "The Happiness Hypothesis" for a list of other ancient thinkers who intuited truisms about our behavior. Buddha was pretty good too.) So, of course, was Freud. Even if he didn't invent the unconscious, his writings are still full of strange insights. (I was just talking to a neuroscientist last week about the biology of dreaming, and he mentioned that much of his work directly confirms Freud...) But the artists I talk about in my book often anticipated very specific - and totally counterintuitive - aspects of neuroscience.

The balanced thing about blogs is that they not only allow us to explore our current musings but they expand the everpresent opportunity to dredge through the past. It's Kelly here, your old friend from Barnard, to say hello, and to share some of my own thoughts that are proximate to your preoccupations. Surprizingly, life has led me through a Proust phase and now into a Neuropsychology one, and I have a few words to share on each. Regarding Proust - I've always admired his ability to decipher the personal boundary and through the illustration of experience, depict the processes by which we introject what is external to us. I've read countless reviews of his work which hinge upon the notion that reading Proust is like reading about oneself, which is remarkable given his rarified sociocultural specifics. In combining sensation with intellecutalization, he brews a poetics of biology. I think it is expected, given his dogged approach to the elucidation of the particulars of experience, that he hit upon the neurobiological bases of feeling/emotion and memory. I look forward to learning more about your work in this area - what a pleasure you will provide to your fellow Proust readers. I believe you are interested in memory? I am also interested in "boundaries" - do you touch on this? Do you invite Spinoza into your book? Perhaps you are already familiar with "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain" by Antonio Damasio, another book that shows old hypotheses supported by current empirical research. As for alternate readings, Rememberance of Things Past/ In Search of Lost time is so good that it cannot help but generate numerous interpretations. To write a book on your theory, I think it best that you love it. And as we know from life and from Proust, love always involves falling headlong.

Baudelaire wrote a lot about the synesthetic experience, a phenomenon that hasn't been explored by neuroscientists until quite recently. I can't remember the precise details and works, but Robert Cytowic wrote about it in The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

Escoffier? Modernism?

By Vance Maverick (not verified) on 15 Sep 2006 #permalink

Well, George Eliot wasn't a modernist either. But you're right: Escoffier really is the odd man out, for too many reasons to count. That said, he was certainly present at the birth of modernism, and cooked lots of meals for Proust and all the other avant-garde artists who could actually afford to dine at the Ritz. And yes, I argue that his culinary technique exposed some deep truth about our mind. I don't want to give the book away, but one of the things Escoffier discovered was the importance of umami, or the taste of protein. He was the first chef to stress the importance of stock (especially veal stock) in cooking, and stocks are nothing but umami water. Escoffier also stressed the idea of deglazing, which is when you burn meat in a pan and then scrape off the burned bits with a liquid (preferably stock). This, of course, is a simple way of making lots of umami and unraveled protein, which the tongue loves. Neuroscience couldn't explain why Escoffier's food tastes so good until the late 1990's, when scientists discovered that our tongue really does contain umami receptors. But I should stop there, or else you won't have to buy the book...

Of course it's unfair to carp without seeing the book....but Brillat-Savarin certainly emphasized the importance of stock. Not that he discovered anything -- he's just a convenient reference point because he wrote a famous book. One wouldn't be surprised to find people theorizing about this question earlier. And of course both were codifying practice that was already pretty stable as they found it.

I am surprised, on the other hand, to learn you weren't pulling our legs. (Well, perhaps as an anonymous mass we have only a single collective leg.)

By Vance Maverick (not verified) on 15 Sep 2006 #permalink

Sorry for the unclosed tag there.

By Vance Maverick (not verified) on 15 Sep 2006 #permalink

Thank you very much for this useful article and the comments.

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Leonard The Magazine Stundent at 9 Eylul University sohbet