There is a trend as of late to ascribe scientific insights to the intuitions of artists. The basic idea is this: whether through literature, visual art, music, or even cooking, artists have predicted—even discovered—the same concepts that scientists later discover in the lab through very different methods.
Some stick to the metaphorical realm with this line of thought, believing that artists do intuit some profound truths about the human experience that are later supported by hard, scientific data. Others, however, take this relationship to the next level, suggesting that the artists are actually making scientific breakthroughs themselves—a step beyond intuition and into the realm of the scientists, who wield their testable, repeatable, peer-reviewed methodology. This trend of thought, which may satisfy our 21st century interdisciplinary romanticism, should be approached with some caution. Can artists really be considered to have made scientific breakthroughs, beyond the metaphorical level of predicting these discoveries with their art? Can artists be called scientists?
Since launching this site late last year, I’ve been given the book Proust was a Neuroscientist twice as a gift and had it recommended to me several other times, as it certainly seems to strike the same chord we’re attempting to hit with this site. Each chapter in the book makes a case for how an artist of yesterday anticipated a scientific breakthrough of today; as the A-equals-B title indicates, author Jonah Lehrer believes they did this tangibly, not metaphorically.
I am a huge admirer of Jonah Lehrer’s writing, which is always graceful and informative (especially his SEED Magazine feature on The Blue Brain Project, which first piqued my interest and led me to start my own documentary film project about the endeavor). His blog The Frontal Cortex is one of the best neuroscience blogs around today. However, I did read Proust was Neuroscientist immediately when it was published in 2007, and it left more questions in my mind than the authoritative title suggests it answers. This is not necessarily a negative: it is always pleasing when a book stirs one’s thoughts, especially when it concerns the intersection of neuroscience and art.
My questions about Proust stem mostly from Lehrer’s step beyond the aforementioned metaphorical level of the artist as scientist, and into the realm of the literal. He writes that “We now know that Proust was right about memory, Cezanne was uncannily accurate about the visual cortex, Stein anticipated Chomsky, and Woolf pierced the mystery of consciousness; modern neuroscience has confirmed these artistic intuitions.” Lehrer gives a lot of credit to these artists, and he wants his claims to be taken seriously. He has said that Proust was a Neuroscientist “is about writers and painters and composers who discovered truths about the human mind—real, tangible truths—that science is only now rediscovering.”
For example, Lehrer argues that George Eliot’s novels reject the scientific determinism of the day and affirm a decidedly modern version of free will, infusing her characters with ever-changing, malleable minds. Then, as Lehrer argues in chapter 2, neuroscientists verified this concept decades later when they discovered adult neurogenesis in the 1990s. George Eliot had no idea about adult neurogenesis, which involves neural stem cells, growth factors, and all sorts of biological data that was not at her disposal. What Eliot may have done—and what all the artists in Lehrer’s book may have done—is to make an intuitive statement about the human condition. As modern neuroscience begins to unveil concepts like adult neurogenesis, whereby new neurons can be created well into adulthood (thus the “malleable” mind) we will see that many artistic intuitions can be tied to scientific findings.
In fact, all artistic intuitions can be tied to the brain—isn’t that where they came from to begin with? We feel like we can learn and change well into adulthood, then that thought is penned into a novel, and sure enough, we discover its cellular basis years later. This can apply to the full spectrum of human thought and intuition. Processes of the brain are all destined to be linked to scientific observations of the brain. Linking Eliot’s literary insights to those about adult neurogenesis seems to be more based on our current neuro-everything craze than on any actual scientific notion of neural stem cell populations that Eliot happened to intuit.
It is hard to dismiss a book that has opened and will continue to open the door to neuroscience for thousands of readers who may be coming to this material from other backgrounds. However, the danger is still that these readers may give the artists discussed in Lehrer’s text a level of hard scientific explanatory power that they simply do not deserve. Artists and scientists both seek to understand human nature, but they have been doing so with very different methodologies in their different vocations. Just because an artist’s insight into human behavior seems to tenuously line up with a neuroscientist’s discovery of cellular dynamics does not then mean that an artist is a neuroscientist. Artists reveal things that science may never be able to; the reverse is also true.
There are cases where we can make such connections by using sturdier threads than those which Lehrer employs.
Goethe, for example—Germany’s national poet—was also a scientist who wrote about plant morphology and color theory. He was a true scientist, and his artistic work reflects the deep insights gained through a lifetime of scientific inquiry.
Neuroscientists are investigators of the central nervous system who use the scientific methods of hypothesis, observation, and deduction to generate testable, repeatable results. They focus mostly on cells, neurotransmitters, and proteins, unveiling the mechanisms that, on a massive scale, account for our thoughts and behaviors. If an individual does those things, they are a neuroscientist. Like a neuroscientist, Proust was an investigator of the nervous system; but his tool was the written word, and his methods were subjective and introspective. He was not a neuroscientist, nor were the other household names Lehrer calls upon in his book.
Lehrer has continued his thinking on this subject with a recent blog post entitled “Borges was a Neuroscientist,” in which he quotes from neuroscientist Rodrigo Quian Quiroga’s piece about Borges published in Nature. Quiroga’s article is an appreciation—he admits that “Even without this scientific knowledge, Borges’s intuitive description is sharp.” But by slapping on the “Borges was a Neuroscientist” title, Lehrer seems to once again overestimate the neuroscientific reach that these artists may have had. It is one thing to appreciate a sharp artistic intuition that meshes with a later scientific discovery. Indeed, the best artists seem to be the ones who have penetrated something real in our brain-based existence. It is another thing to keep calling these artists neuroscientists—this, even if metaphorically, even if just to attract attention, is misleading.
I am always delighted to take a ride back and forth across the normally rigid division between the arts and sciences, and Lehrer’s writing takes us on that ride quite gracefully. But his can be a irresponsible grace, as it lends the explanatory power of neuroscience to the intuitions of artists who had barely any sense of cells, synapses, action potentials and ion channels. To call an artist a neuroscientist sounds sexy—a buzzword plucked from an increasingly neuro-centric culture—but that sexiness might fade quickly if we picture the artist elbow-deep in formaldehyde, wielding a micro-pipette—which none of these artists ever did. Being elbow-deep in formaldehyde may be sexy on another level, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time.
The future of the dialogue between the arts and the sciences is exciting, as more and more artists begin to tap the rich reservoirs of scientific findings for subject matter and inspiration, and scientists begin to listen to artists for clues as to the neuroscientific basis of their creative processes. We should remain acutely aware of the possibilities as well as the limits of this dialogue. Proust was a Neuroscientist, while exciting in its interdisciplinary nature, may be more of a neuro-revisionist text than a true dialogue between the arts and sciences.
If anything, Lehrer’s book—and his continued use of the gag—should shift from “Artist X was a Neuroscientist” to “Artist X was a Cognitive Psychologist,” as that would rightly put more emphasis on behavior (often the artist’s own) as evidence rather than on the observation of cells and synapses. But will that really sell?