Proust Was A Neuroscientist — Riffing on the Intersection of Art and Neuroscience

Johah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist is a lot of fun to read. The gist of the book is that many of today’s big neuroscience discoveries were described very well by artists years before. The quote from the end of the book describes it well.

When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art. (page 197)

My favorite chapter is “5. Paul Cézanne The Process of Sight” where Lehrer talks about how our eyes are not cameras. In a nutshell our mind fills in a lot of gaps. Most of what we see is “mind filler”. Very cool. Lehrer also talks about Cezanne’s minimalist nonfinito paintings which have just enough information for our mind to figure out the image. Which can be translated to — “this is the amount of information that our mind really gets via the eyes”. The rest is made up by our brain/mind. Fascinating.

For us cooks the chapter on Auguste Escoffier “The Essence of Taste” is a great ride through the discovery of umami and the development of french cooking. There is lots of discussion on the development of “stock”. Reminded me of my sous chef days. Lotsa time required to make “real” stock. It’s so “worth it”, boy does it ever taste amazing.

The other chapters are in a similar vein. Lehrer discusses the art of Walt Whitman and relates it to current Neuroscience on “feeling”. George Elliot on Freedom. Proust on Memory. Stravinsky on Music. Stein on Language. Woolf on The Self.

For a science head this is a great way to learn about, and appreciate, the work of a handful of great artists.


If you haven’t read Lehrer before I suggest starting with How We Decide. It’s his second book and his maturity as a writer helps us readers.