Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist I

by F.

Finally, someone rips Jonah Lehrer’s maudlin book Proust was a Neuroscientist, though the reviewer doesn’t note one of the most risible of Lehrer’s ticks: according to Lehrer, everyone who thinks about the mind in any way whatsoever is a neuroscientist. For instance, Bill Clinton is a neuroscientist. But anyway, here’s a representative quote from the review in Salon:

Lehrer’s ponderings about Escoffier are trivial. His writings about novelists including Proust, Virginia Woolf and George Eliot are disastrous. His treatment of Eliot serves an apt example, since he credits her with anticipating an especially surprising discovery about the brain: neurogenesis, or the ability to grow new neurons…. Following years of diligent experimentation, Lehrer writes in his boilerplate Horatio Alger prose, “[t]he textbooks were rewritten: the brain is constantly giving birth to itself.” Which makes him think of Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” in which characters have the startling ability to develop, becoming, by the end of the book, different from who they were at the beginning. “[N]eurogenesis is evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving,” Lehrer writes. “Eliot was right: to be alive is to be ceaselessly beginning.”

What Lehrer has done is extend a kind of lede into a book, and it just doesn’t work. Many science stories start out with something like, “Virginia Woolf famously said that such-and-such. Now scientists are finding something similar.” (See any issue of The Economist’s Science and Technology section for many examples.)

This device is surprising and fun as a lede. As the premise for a book? Mneh. Lehrer also loves to end sections with “arty” but formulaic comparisons: “Walt Whitman was right all along: we contain multitudes” or whatever. Oh, how sublime! On other words “[Famous artist] was right all along: [scientific finding only superficially related to famous artists quote].” Jonah Lehrer Mad Libs anyone?

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