Credit where due: I first heard about this book over at MindHacks, and their review (as well as short interview!) suggested this book would be an interesting read. However, I never wrote the title down (as I usually try to do with books I might be interested in reading), and it fell off my radar. However, I was perusing the books in the “New Non-Fiction” section of my library, and there it was! Now, after having read the first chapter, I consider myself very fortuitous.
Proust was a Neuroscientist is described as an examination of how artists working in various media (poets, novelists, painters, etc.) were able to discover an essential truth about the human mind that science has only recently been able to confirm. In a more general way, the book discusses how both art and science are paths to knowledge, and how reducing everything to data points can cost us valuable insights and information. It would also appear (though I have not read the whole book yet), that the author (Jonah Lehrer) endorses the idea that both Art and Science have something important to offer, and knowledge is best served when both are utilized. A somewhat similar idea was posited in the book The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, but with more of an emphasis on the idea that science (and in particular, Physics) has been moving away from a reductionist model, and now thrives on a more creative, artistic vision.
Thus far, I’ve only completed the first chapter, but I found it both well-written and engaging. The subject matter in question was Walt Whitman, and the physicality of emotions. The chapter lays out the history of scientific thought regarding the origin and location of feeling in the human body, and noted that during the time of Walt Whitman (the latter half of the 19th century), the general consensus was that the body was simply a vessel for the brain. The brain was the locale for all that made us human: thoughts, feelings, even the Soul. According to Lehrer, Whitman defied this thinking by writing poetry suggesting it is his body that encapsulates his emotions, his soul, his very being:
O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men
and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes
of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my
Poems, and that you are my poems.
- From “I Sing the Body Electric,” of “Enfans d’Adam,” also printed on pg. 10 of Proust was a Neuroscientist
The chapter goes on to discuss Whitman’s background, including the profound impact his medical work during the Civil War had on his perceptions of the body. There is a review of his association and friendship with Silas Weir Mitchell, a doctor during the Civil War who was the first physician to seriously examine the phenomenon of the “phantom limb” (a term used to describe an amputee’s sensation of “feeling” the limb that has been removed). The chapter also discusses the work of William James and his thinking about psychology (as well as his and Whitman’s shared love of the works of Emerson). Finally, there is a discussion about how modern neuroscience is confirming what Whitman wrote of long ago - feelings begin in the flesh.
The chapter specifically cites the work of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, and his work regarding the process he has called “the body loop.” Basically, it works like this: We seeing something threatening, the brain triggers a wave of physical changes in order to respond, our body prepares for action, and then our cortex interprets these physical changes (by connecting them to the original stimulus). The science behind this is fascinating, but you’ll have to read the book for more.
The chapter makes some interesting points, including the idea that feelings are important, and should not be ignored for the sake of “rational thought.” I agree with this, to a point. As a therapist, I will always encourage my clients to pay attention to feelings, as they are, in fact, a source of information. However, I also point out that feelings, when too intense, tend to lead to poor choices. This may be due to a variety of reasons, which is beyond the scope of this post. However, I will tell my anger management clients, “This is Anger Management, not Anger Elimination. Anger is fine, anger can be important, and can be useful. It is what you do with it, when it is appropriate, that matters.” Don’t ignore it, but don’t indulge it - listen to it, and work with it.
What was nice about this chapter was both how much I learned about the cast of characters and the theories/ideas behind them, but also how much it prompted me to think about the subject at hand. I can’t ask for more from a book. As I read the other chapters, I may post (smaller) summaries or the main ideas. However, if the rest of the book was as good as this chapter, I say you should just go out and read it yourself.
BTW, if you are interested in psychology, check out my other web page at : http://postcards-from-the-id.typepa