Friday, August 28, 2009

Comments on "Proust was a Neuroscientist"

I have been reading, in fits and starts, Jonah Leher's "Proust was a Neuroscientist," and just came across a review by Jonathan Bates that is consonant with my own opinions of the book:

The book is an elegant collection of essays—like Davis's extended essay, written in partial homage to William James—in which a range of 19th and early 20th century artists are shown to have discovered truths about the human mind ‘that science is only now rediscovering’ (pvii). Thus we get Walt Whitman on the ’embodied‘ nature of emotion (anticipating Antonio Damasio's work, which is so inspiring to scholars on the humanist side of the two cultures divide), Escoffier on the essence of taste, Cézanne on the process of sight, Gertrude Stein on the structure of language and so on. The focus is very much on the innovations of modernism. It would have been equally possibly to write a series of studies based on earlier anticipations—Wordsworth rather than Proust on memory, Keats rather than Whitman on the body—but that does not diminish the sharpness of the insights.

The book is worth its price for the chapter on Proust alone. This begins with some fairly obvious points, for instance that Proust was right to suppose that taste and smell are more powerful triggers for memory than sight, hearing and the self-conscious work of trying to remember something because they are ‘the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the centre of the brain's long-term memory’ (p80). This explains the effect of the famous madeleine dipped into a cup of tea in Du côté de chez Swann. But Lehrer rapidly moves on to the much more interesting question of memory's fallibility. The key to A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is that past time is forever lost and that the search for it will always end in failure because of the fallibility of memory.

Lehrer contends that Proust intuited something that experimentation has now confirmed:

‘A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes ... every time we remember anything, the neuronal structure of the memory is delicately transformed, a process called reconsolidation ... So the purely objective memory, the one ‘true’ to the original taste of the madeleine, is the one memory you will never know. The moment you remember the cookie's taste is the same moment you forget what it really tasted like’ (p85).

Lehrer backs up this proposition with a fascinating account of some experiments on rats at New York University (Nader et al., 2000Go, 2004). Admittedly, this begs the question of the degree to which human memories work like rat memories. But the evidence does seem to support the profoundly Proustian idea that a memory is not like a photograph stored somewhere in the brain. Rather, ‘every memory is inseparable from the moment of its recollection: there simply is no way to describe the past without lying. Our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction’ (p88). This was a thought that Wordsworth got to before Proust: in his great autobiographical poem The Prelude, he wrestled with the question of the degree to which the feelings associated with his memories were invented by the very act of remembering.

Lehrer reminds us that the average half life of a brain protein is only 14 days. ‘The mind is in a constant state of reincarnation’ (p91). If the brain is constantly being reconstituted out of new cells, how do memories last? The chapter concludes with a tentative answer from Kausik Si's hypothesis that the ‘synaptic mark’ of memory is to be found in the cyptoplasmic polyadenylation element binding protein, which behaves very like a prion (Si et al., 2003Go). As is well-known from the huge challenge of research on mad cow disease, prions are virtually indestructible and ‘display an astonishing amount of plasticity’ (p93). Si's work remains controversial but it is, Lehrer claims, ‘the first hypothesis that begins to explain how sentimental ideas endure’. And the model is indeed remarkably Proustian.

....whilst there are new things about Shakespeare and Proust to be learnt by humanities scholars from brain science, so there are old things which Shakespeare and Proust can teach to brain scientists.

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