December 19, 2008

Proust was a Neuroscientist

A more accurate title for the book would have been Proust, along with a poet, a chef, a composer, an artist, and 3 writers, intuited what neuroscientists later found to be true; that wouldn't sell books, however. Like myself, many people haven't read Proust, but he holds a certain mystique. Escoffier, the French chef, made for an interesting chapter, but I wouldn't have wanted to read a book about him.

Instead of a review, these are the points I found interesting. William James, eminent psychologist "was drawn to the phenomena that mental reductionism ignored".(p17) These are always the more interesting. The section on hypnosis later in the book was informative.

"Life is slipshod."(p48) This was in reference to stochastic gene expression. Lo, we are not our DNA. Behold, part of us isn't controlled by anything. I recently saw an article about how two identical cloned dogs weren't alike. The owner couldn't explain it but stochastic gene expression in the developing dog fetus could.

A great quote from Cajal is in a footnote on page 83. "No one without a certain intuition - a divinatory instinct for perceiving the idea behind the fact and the law behind the phenomenon - will devise a reasonable solution, whateer his gifts as an observer."

Gertrude Stein certainly had something to say with her writing, not in her writing, but who the hell wants to read it?

I must read Wittgenstein, quoted on p155, "The meaning of a word is its use in the language." Certainly, any grand philosophy must start with language and linguistics, for what can we think and conjecture if we don't have language. This can be taken one step further by investigating what allowed us to obtain language. It turns out cerebral assymetry is not unique to humans. Why are humans (we) different?

Sperry and Gazzinga made their career on split brain patients. (p179) Much was gleaned. However, I think their work contributed to the Right brain/Left brain craze. At the beginning of The origin of consciousness and the breakdown of the bicameral mind, Jaynes begins with criticism of other theories of mind as derivative of singular scientific discoveries. The title of his book clearly shows his devotion to split brain patients.

Like any good pop science book, the ideas were dense, capable of triggering the far-off gaze of thought-grappling. Are we looking for the thought? Do we think better with our eyes closed? As opposed to the Gladwell's of pop science, this book was solid.

Jonah Lehrer. Proust was a Neuroscientist. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2007.