"Proust was a neuroscientist" on Salon

Jonathon Keats (no, not that one) has written a scorching review of neuro grad student Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Proust was a Neuroscientist.

I saw this somewhat more favorable review a few weeks in the NYT and was intrigued by the book. As an undergrad, I majored in cognitive science and English and, naturally, was fascinated by the cultural differences of academics in these disparate fields.

As in the Salon article, I also think attempts to unify the “two cultures” (ie. arts and sciences) are misguided. A work like Lehrer’s book (which I have not read) will need to work hard to “prove” its thesis and likely sound very forced. What can we really say about arts vs. sciences? For that matter, is it important to make value judgments on this topic? I’d say, no. We seem to have a natural urge to categorize our activities and then try to order them. Science is more worthwhile. Art is a more creative endeavor. Are these blanket generalizations productive?

But there is overlap between the two cultures and those regions seem more and more important to me. And I think neuroscience in particular has a lot to say here, too. If we know what makes good art good (in a scientific way), will we stop appreciating it or enjoying it? (This is similar to the idea that if someone told you free will was simply an illusion would the illusion be any less powerful than it is right now?) Often, the surprise of creative thought underlies the best science and the best art. Okay, there’s my attempt at a unification!

On a separate note, there certainly seems to be a hunger amongst the reading public for neuroscience books, despite our incomplete picture of how the brain works. For those frustrated with slow progress in research, maybe we should just go write a book.

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