Proust Was a Neuroscientist


Jonah Lehrer’s thesis in Proust Was a Neuroscientist is that Proust’s intuitive understanding of the power (and fallibility) of memory is supported by modern memory research. He supports this idea with several lines of narrative.

First, involuntary memory sparked by taste and smell has a particular force that sets it apart from other forms of memory. The reason appears to be that these memories are non-verbal at their source.

When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

(Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged: 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Kindle Locations 1173-1176). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

Neuroscience now knows that Proust was right. Rachel Herz, a psychologist at Brown, has shown—in a science paper wittily entitled “Testing the Proustian Hypothesis”—that our senses of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental. This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory. Their mark is indelible. All our other senses (sight, touch, and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source of language and the front door to consciousness. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past. Proust intuited this anatomy. He used the taste of the madeleine and

(Lehrer, Jonah (2008-09-01). Proust Was a Neuroscientist (p. 80). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.)

More emotional impact, yes, but not necessarily more accurate than other types of memories. Proust did not give us Marcel’s experience the next time he ate a madeleine, but it surely would have been emotionally diluted by the recall of the original epiphany.  Memories, after all, at some point have a biological basis of synapses and proteins.

How do memories last? How do they escape the withering acids of time? After all, the cells of the brain, like all cells, are in constant flux. The average half-life of a brain protein is only fourteen days. A small subset of our hippocampal neurons dies and is reborn; the mind is in a constant state of reincarnation. (p. 91).

When Proust remembers the madeleine in Swanns Way, it wasn’t because he’d eaten lots of madeleines. In fact, the opposite was true. Proust’s memory is hauntingly specific and completely unexpected. His memory of Combray, cued by some chance crumbs, interrupts his life, intruding for no logical reason, “with no suggestion of its origin.” Proust is shocked by his past. These literary memories are precisely the sort of remembrances that the old scientific models couldn’t explain. Those models don’t seem to encapsulate the randomness and weirdness of the memory we live in. They don’t describe its totality, the way memories appear and disappear, the way they change and float, sink and swell. Our memories obsess us precisely because they disobey every logic, because we never know what we will retain and what we will forget. (pp. 90-91).

Lehrer goes on to describe a promising theory of how memories are formed, preserved and altered (it involves prions).  The science, though, is the more accurate (and entertaining) part of his story. I would object, for instance, to his statement “When Proust remembers the madeleine…”. Marcel remembers, not Proust. The first time he attempted to write this scene, Proust has a piece of toast or zwieback trigger the memory. But, in sum, he makes a good case for the convergence of a novelist’s insights and science.

It’s an approach I find deeply sympathetic to my own way of reading Proust, which is no doubt so atypical that I will add a short autobiographical note.

My earliest intellectual passion, one that I pursued completely independent of any academic requirement, was astronomy. I wanted to know both how stars burned and how they looked in my telescope. This interest broadened to cosmology and the origins of things and this turned out to be my intellectual anchor. After learning what I could of the Big Bang and its physics, I turned to biology and its creation story, natural selection, as the next stage in cosmic evolution: matter becoming alive. This in turn lead to the nature of human consciousness. I read the philosophers like John Searle and Daniel Dennet. I read the behavioural side in writers like Oliver Sacks. And then the neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Christopher Koch. The final stage of cosmic evolution for me was to go beyond exterior explanations of consciousness and best representations of the interiorness of consciousness. This has been the most satisfying stage of all, leading me especially to all forms of modernism in art: Cezanne and Matisse, Mann, Joyce, Musil and best of all, Proust. So there you have my own version of how Proust was a neuroscientist.

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