Who is a Neuroscientist?

Can artists be called neuroscientists?
Can artists be called neuroscientists?

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.proustwasaneuroscientist

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's manuscipts contain illustrations of his scientific studies of plants and insects.
Goethe's manuscripts from 1790 contain illustrations of his scientific studies of plants and insects.

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?

Let us know what you think in the comments section. Can artists really be considered to have made scientific breakthroughs?

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a film director and curator, and was named a 2015 Salzburg Global Fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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  • Its a great chapter…..has really highlighted the value of neuroscience….one of the most astonishing and fascinating science i believe……..I believe everything whether a thought ,pain,sorrow,jou,laughter comes from brain as it is rightly saidWHAT YOU BELIEVE>>>>YOU PERCIEVE AND FINALLY ACHIEVE!!!!!
    Awesome article….keep posting,

  • Sometimes the sign of a good book. “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”
    Science is the art of discovery. Left brain people like myself are great at digging into facts when they are presented. I often stair at a blank piece of paper, waiting for that spark of creativity. Artists have that spark built in and are often the ones that see the science (from their point of view) before the scientist does. It is amazing how we all think from different perspectives and that we don’t see the final picture until we put our collective minds together.

  • Hey Noah. Love the site. I just want to say that this is almost exactly what I thought about the book after reading it, even down to the part about psychology instead of neuroscience. But I haven’t been able to formulate my critique into words like you have. Bravo.

    Another point is that since so many artists make imprecise claims, it should be easy with the benefit of hindsight to show how some of these are were onto something. It’s the same trap that Michael Lewis has fallen into with The Big Short (bless his soul). Since the subspace of potential outcomes is still vast, and it is only by scienctic falsification that can we can make it smaller.

  • Andy,
    Thanks for the comments. Glad to hear we’re on the same wavelength about the book. I hear you about scientific falsification making many realms smaller, but I also think it’s interesting that much of 20th and 21st century science has actually expanded once seemingly contained realms to the point where we now feel more overwhelmed by the amount of unexplored terrain that lies before us, i.e. in cosmology and neuroscience. And likewise I think that if there is any sense that contemporary art is running out of possibilities and material permutations, it need only to turn to these ever-burgeoning areas of human inquiry for a vast pool of subject matter and inspiration.

  • Noah, I quite agree with your effort to tease out the clunkiness of Lehrer’s otherwise lyrical attempt to dash CP Snow’s rusty dualism into the dusty archives of intellectual history.

    I have to ask all of us involved in the art/sci discussion: What compels us to want to make the sort of claims to come across in Lehrer’s good writing? Is there a need to unify and substantiate methods of inquiry in the face of an angry anti-intellectual cabal?

    I sense something deeper in your question — something that goes to the heart of your Blue Brain film project: What will be the language of the brain/mind once we can simulate the networks of the human brain? Will Psychology, Phenomenology, Epistemology, Cognitive Science, Consciousness Studies be in for a big rethink? I suspect so.

    BTW, one of the factoids I love about late 19th century artistic practice — many painters in France, besides Cezanne, were studying new optics, new cultural tech methods of perceiving space (e.g. Manet looking at Hokusai’s wood block prints.)

    Terrific site! Great contribution to “neuro-aesthetics!”

  • Yes, upon hindsight we see the correlates of prediction and consummation in regards to artist’s insights. But how many truck drivers do you know who have as successful a hit rate as artists? Da Vinci, Galileo, etc., etc., I think there’s a connection here.

    “we cannot ignore Albert Einstein, an accomplished violinist who was also a physicist. He once went so far as to say (in Viereck 1929, npn): ―If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.‖ Here we have his conscious recognition of his own duality as an artist-scientist. And at this point we are compelled to wonder if we are really dealing with a unity rather than a duality, a unity greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Something else Einstein said (Henderson in Einstein Archives, 33:257)4 leads to such a conclusion: ―After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity and
    4 To clarify, Einstein made this statement in 1923 as recollected by Archibald Henderson in1955.
    Forum on Public Policy
    form. The greatest scientists are artists as well.‖ Apparently, the gap did not exist within Einstein‘s mind.

  • I really like your article. And I agree about the possibilities of the intersections of art and neurosciences. But, what I was thinking when I was reading your text is: If is wrong to call ‘neuroscientist’ to an artist, just because of it’s intuition to create a line of thought that influence scientific knowledge, why do science use the word ‘art’ to call any visual representation of the brain? I mean, science should not call ‘art’ to the scientific aestheticization of the brain, because art is more than just the aesthetic issue.

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