Tuesday, June 1, 2010
I had no idea what a book called Proust was a Neuroscientist would be about, but it came highly recommended on the intertubes. It was absolutely worth the read - his premise is that you can often find artists (be they painters, composers, authors, poets, or even a chef) that discovered interesting aspects of brain and sensory function before the science had a chance to think of experimenting on the ideas. It didn't really get anti-sciency, which was something I was nervous about after reading the introduction. But it's more that the artists served a function, in addition to producing their art, to become a font of hypotheses about the way we experience the world. It makes absolute sense - if science stays in the laboratory all the time, it won't function right. The best kind of science starts with people saying "I wonder why" or "I wonder if" - ideally triggered by doing things in the world. These cooks, writers and visionaries knew a lot more about the actual qualia (triple bonus word score for using the word that inspired my blog in an actual post) of existence than many of the scientists running experiments did at the time. Auguste Escoffier realized that we like hot food not just because you're supposed to cook the meat or warm ourselves up - it tasted better. Science figured out that the nose is more important to taste than the tongue is in terms of receptors. Impressionist painters saw the world in blotches and mixes of colors, which is actually how our eyes see the world. Our brains are relied upon to make sense of a very rudimentary primary set of visual data. Proust himself wrote very uniquely about memory (as did Virginia Woolf) - presenting people that don't remember things accurately, which is often ignored in fiction.
It's a neat introduction to some psychological and neurological ideas that definitely does not get bogged down in details. If you like Oliver Sacks, you'll like this book.