Reasons to dislike Jonah Lehrer

There are many reasons to dislike Jonah Lehrer. The fact that he has written two well-received books on neuroscience, has an influential psychology column for Wired magazine, has dinner parties in New York that are so well-connected that even London journos like Claudia Hammond and James Crabtree tweet of meeting at one of his soirees, that he earns, at my guestimate, around $50,000 for after-dinner speaking. Oh, and he’s only 29.
Given all that, I was hoping I would dislike his book,
Proust Was A Neuroscientist, which came out in the US in 2007 but for some reason has only just come out here in the UK. That means he must have written it when he was 24: some writers, like William Dalrymple, seem to leap into the world fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus' head.

I was really hoping it would be duff. Bad news: it’s actually really good. Like all great non-fiction books, it has a clear idea and a simple structure. The idea: artists, particularly modernist artists, intuited and predicted many of the latest ideas in neuroscience. The structure: eight chapters, looking at eight artists, including Whitman, Woolf, Stravinsky, Cezanne, Gertrude Stein, and Marcel Proust; and how their ideas, on the self, on seeing, on taste, on memory, are finding confirmation in the latest neuroscience research.
The bigger idea, really, is that the arts and sciences need to get over the enmity and mutual incomprehension that seems to have grown up between the two since... well, since the end of the nineteenth century I would say, and which the scientist and author CP Snow highlighted in his 1959 Rede Lecture, called ‘Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’.

Western societies are in danger of becoming like split-brain patients, whose left and right hemispheres have lost the capacity to talk to each other. Snow was particularly concerned that all the leaders of western societies were literary intellectuals, and that not enough status or respect was granted to scientists, who had “the future in their bones”.

50 years on, I’m not sure how true that second part is. We seem to have great respect, these days, for scientists - whether that be neuroscientists, astronomists, psychiatrists, geneticists, computer scientists, economists, climatologists or statisticians. Their public standing and influence over politics only seems to increase. The standing of the humanities and ‘literary intellectuals’, meanwhile, seems to sink ever lower, and thinkers like Martha Nussbaum are having to fight rear-guard actions to defend their function and funding. The British government, we notice, ring-fenced funding for scientific research, while humanities funding was
put to the sword.

And I think the arts are at least partly to blame for the decline in their perceived relevance, for failing to keep up with recent advances in astronomy, genetics, particle physics, neuroscience, experimental psychology...or even basic computing. Lacking comprehension of the broader state of knowledge in society, arts are reduced to focusing narrowly on the personal. The result is the curiously feeble cultural life we now have, where
Slumdog Millionaire is considered a triumph. An honourable exception is the scientifically literate British novelist Ian McEwan, who appropriately features in the conclusion of Lehrer's book.

There have been efforts to bring the two cultures together, notably the biologist Edward O Wilson’s 1998 book,
Consilience. I still have the copy I bought at university, and I still remember my disappointment when I read the book. It claimed to be an attempt to synthesize the two cultures into a new ‘unity of knowledge’. In fact, it was a clumsy attempt to explain the humanities in the reductive terms of the sciences - not a synthesis, so much as a hostile takeover.

Wilson did try and reassure artsy readers that the brave new world of consilience was not a nightmare for the humanities. In one incredibly awkward chapter,
The Arts and their Interpretation, he put forward the ‘biological explanation of the arts’, which consisted of paragraphs like this, on the beauty of the human face: “an average face is attractive but not optimally attractive. Certain dimensions of the face are evidently given more weight than others.” The chapter ended with the embarrassing call to artists: “Poet in my heart, walk with me across the mysterious land. We can still be hunters in the million-year dreamtime.” Er, no thanks Edward, think I’ll sit this one out.

The obvious place for a dialogue, or dance, between the sciences and the humanities, is the psyche. It is there that psychiatrists, psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers and artists meet, and have interesting things to tell each other.

But it is also precisely in this domain that the sciences and arts have bumped heads. Things started optimistically at the beginning of the 20th century, with the appearance of psychoanalysis. Freud was a scientist steeped in the humanities, more likely to use Hamlet or Oedipus as evidence than any lab study. Artists adored his ideas, with their emphasis on sex, dreams, the unconscious, and the power of story-telling. The first English translations of his work were printed by Virginia Woolf’s printing press, while the Surrealists invited a bemused Freud to their international convention (where Dali almost suffocated in a diving helmet). Freud kept his distance - he was a scientist, he said. He knew little of the arts, and barely read philosophy.

Yeah right. The problem, perhaps, was that Freud, and his estranged disciple Carl Jung, were really more humanities scholars than scientists. They wrote beautifully, they knew their Goethe and Shakespeare backwards, they made profound and resonant pronouncements on the human mind...but they were rubbish at testing their theories empirically. Freud seemed to think he had ‘proved’ his ideas with a handful of anecdotal case studies, the details of which, it later emerged, he sometimes twisted to suit his theories.

The scientific hokum of psychoanalysis perhaps only served to deepen the schism between the arts and sciences. The fact that Freud ignored the biological cause of some of his patients’ illnesses highlighted the irresponsibility of the humanities, and their airy disregard of biological and material facts. So, as psychoanalysis declined in influence, in its place arose the biomedical model of the mind, that looked for the biochemical or neurological causes of mental phenomena, and which sought to treat mental illnesses through drugs, or surgery.

But both psychiatry and neuroscience too often claimed too much, or were seduced into over-selling by the insidious influence of pharmaceutical companies, or attempted foolish reductions of artistic creations to neurological or evolutionary processes, as if Dostoevsky’s novels could be reduced to his epilepsy, or the power of art could be reduced to the evolutionary need to spot a predator among foliage (as VS Ramachandran apparently tries to
claim in his new book).

The exception to this philistinism, I think, is the neuroscientist Oliver Sacks - because he understands that all neurological situations are also personal experiences, which are interpreted, lived in and adapted to by actual persons. Therefore any attempt to reduce their cases to biological determinants needs to be balanced with narratives, stories, and attempts to see the world through the eyes of the person whose brain you are describing.

Lehrer’s book is another worthy example of this bridge between the two hemispheres of the arts and sciences. What impressed me about the book was how well he knew the arts. The learning on Woolf, or Whitman, or George Eliot, or Proust, is profound. He clearly genuinely knows and loves these writers, and his writing on them never reduces their achievements - on the contrary, it sharpened my appreciation of them, made me want to go back and read them again.

Several times in the book, I wanted to cheer his critiques of clumsy scientific reductionism, past and present. His chapter on George Eliot included a critique of the nineteenth century cult of Positivism, which tried to explain all of reality through a handful of simple and predictable laws. He showed how Eliot was inspired by the scientific method, and appreciated it, but also how her great work,
Middlemarch, ultimately criticized the attempt to find one ‘key’ to all of reality.

Funnily enough, I often think of the end of
Middlemarch when considering our latest Positivist urge to establish a ‘science’ of well-being and an empirical measurement of the meaning of life. Eliot wrote of her heroine, Dorothea:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I like that ‘incalculably’, and wish the Positive Social Scientists of our own day heeded it more often.
You can make some critiques of the book. Lehrer uncritically promotes Antonio Damasio’s neuro-chemical theory of the emotions in one chapter, and yet also suggests, in another chapter, that we can change ourselves through the power of our attention, which implies a more cognitive theory of emotions. That seems a contradiction to me. Our emotions may direct our reason, but can our reason also direct our emotions?

Lehrer also ends the book by suggesting that both the arts and the sciences can be ‘useful’ in describing reality. True - but that’s quite a utilitarian justification of the arts. They’re not just useful. They’re beautiful.

And I would like, eventually, a deeper exploration of the relationship between the sciences and the humanities to try and tease out the relationship between Is and Ought, between what we can measure and what we can’t, and to explore the difference between scientific facts and moral beliefs. These are questions that are coming up more and more as psychology, philosophy and neuroscience converge.

But these are minor quibbles. This is an annoyingly good book, which argues quite rightly that while we should not aim for a complete consilience of the arts and sciences, both cultures can only benefit from a better informed and more respectful conversation.