Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Proust was a Neuroscientist"

Of all the books I've read for the Cog-Sci program, "Proust was a Neuroscientist," by Jonah Lehrer, was perhaps my favorite. In this book Lehrer examines the lives and works of a number of important cultural figures: the French chef Auguste Escoffier, poet Walt Whitman, painter Paul Cezanne, composer Igor Stravinsky, novelist Marcel Proust, novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), writer Gertrude Stein, and novelist Virginia Woolf.

Lehrer demonstrates how these figures, in their own field and in their own way, actually intuited and described neurological features that have only (relatively) recently been accepted by the scientific community. For example, Marcel Proust (1871 - 1922) once wrote of eating a madeline cookie. As he ate the cookie, long-forgotten memories from his childhood came back to him. This experience is explained by more recent discoveries in neuroscience that link the smell and taste modules of our brain directly to the hippocampus, which is responsible in large part for long term memory. In his novels Proust would also change details of scenes as characters recalled them later in the story, demonstrating his intuitive knowledge of the fallibility and creativity of memory.

This book is important because it shows that a thorough understanding of neuroscience is not necessary to have a grasp on important concepts in the field. Much of what we know, I would suggest, has this intuitive quality to it, even if we cannot explain it in terms of neurons and structures of the brain. (However, as new scientific evidence comes to light, our suspicions may be confirmed or denied, or some completely different explanation may actually end up being true, and how exciting this is!)


  1. Have you personally experienced a recollection of a specific memory just by eating something, as Proust has done with his cookie?

  2. You mentioned enjoying the book "Proust was a Neoroscientist" which we are currently reading in COG 166. I know that i personally enjoyed the chapter on Auguste Escoffier and the concept of Umami. What would you say was your favorite chapter and what drew you to it?"

  3. Other than "Proust was a Neuroscientist", have there been any other books that you've read for the cognitive science program that have a left a strong impression on you?