Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Thoughts Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin 2007, 200 pages*


MOTIVATION for READING:    I read Eva’s review.     I wondered about my reaction to the name/word ‘Proust’  (Initial reactions:   I assume he is ‘hard’?   I don’t think I know anything about him nor what he is written.   I couldn’t even be sure he was a writer or a philosopher.   How do I develop these ideas and what do I base them on?) So I thought this would be just the ticket to get me to think about how I think.    Plus, I love nonfiction and I like reading science books.

WHAT it’s ABOUT:    Mr Lehrer had an idea that a few certain artists actually came up with some neurological explanations for how our minds work (perhaps without themselves being fully aware of what they ‘discovered’) and SURE ENOUGH!   scientists came along later and PROVED these discoveries!    I loved it.   I loved the fun thoughts that popped into my head – the aha!  and YES!  and “That’s just COOL.”

I’ve often wondered why we refer to so many artists as ‘genius!’ and yet when I think of the definition of genius, I think of someone really smart, like Einstein – someone who typically works in the SCIENCES.    This book explores the concepts that might seem at odds and yet are very integral.      We shouldn’t think people who are good at math and science cant’ appreciate ‘good’ books and certainly, if you love to read, you shouldn’t excuse away that you are ‘BAD AT MATH’  –  bah humbug.    Stop compartmentalizing.    It’s the same frustration I have when I say I am an engineer and someone will immediately think I design cars.   WRONG.     Our definitions are too boxed in.   and too small.


Did you know that Walt Whitman wrote that line about the ‘body electric’ before anyone had a definite clue about the electricity in our bodies?!


I will never be able to just glance at a Cezanne painting (um, who?  isn’t he one of those French Impressionists?  uh, no.)  and shrug.   Or rather, I will now be able to glance – then stare – then wonder with an amazed curiosity at a Cezanne painting.   Then shrug.

It’s all about the image of what I’m looking at and contemplating not just the light reflections through my eyeballs but the interesting way my brain waves interpret those images and yet, they’ve proved that even that is not quite true of how we ‘see’.   Fascinating.


I was thrilled and delighted with the chapter on Auguste Estoffier – I had never heard of this guy before and as a lover of all things Food Network…   let’s just say this dude is cool.    He’d have his own show on TV if he was alive today and I would watch.


I don’t think any book has stirred me to subsequent action like this one has.      I had to go listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and really listen with new amazement and insight.     What a guy!  (and thank you Internet for making the process of looking this stuff up so easy)

I can’t wait to read more Woolf!     As an intro to her writings, this book is terrific.    And now I’m also super excited to read McEwan’s Saturday which is his response to Mrs. Dalloway which is a book I loved and will be re-reading very soon.    I’ve never read any George Eliot – now I want to.    I have only read a fictionalized bio of Gertrude Stein (The Book of Salt by Monique Truong) and am now a bit more curious to actually read something she’s written.  

“How can grammar be?” Stein asked herself in How to Write. “Nevertheless” was her answer.

I’m still iffy on Walt;  the book can’t do everything…  But I am not intimidated by Proust anymore!

It feels like my words here have been preaching to the choir.   If you don’t know anything about these artists nor what they are known for, it’s OK.  I only knew names of some before I picked up this book.   I’m certainly no expert on neuroscience.    But Lehrer does a great job of not getting too heavy and yet it is still complex – in a good way.    He used a few big words and referenced a few things I didn’t have the context to ‘get’ but I still loved how this book made me think.

If you agree with the idea that humanities and science should not be totally distinct and unrelated subjects of study, I heartily recommend this.

The mind is not a place;  it is a process.

Please do go read Eva’s thoughts on this book.   She also includes some excerpts from the book so you can get a much better impression of the writing and what’s discussed.

* How do you count page numbers?   Do you count only the text and not the biblio + index, etc?   or what ever page number is on the last page with a page number?    If I were to do that, this book has 242 pages.   But I didn’t read every word on those last pages so I only counted through the Acknowledgments.

21 thoughts on “Proust Was a Neuroscientist

  1. I count to the end of the text…I don’t include the endnotes, or index, or any of that stuff.

    I thought I had this book, but it’s the other one…with Proust and Squid in the title.

    1. I think I have the book in my tbr. I wonder if I should read that and THEN start my first real Proust attempt?

      thx for input on page counts… it IS a nonfiction issue, yes?

  2. Care, this is such a joyous review, it completely makes me want to read this book! Which previously I wasn’t going to as I am not a science girl and Proust freaks me out. (My extremely clever friend tim swears up and down that his book is wonderful but I have never been able to get on with it.) Oh how I love the collisions of art and science.

    1. Joyous review?! Thanks. 🙂 The ‘collision of art and science’ – I love it. When I was gathering my thoughts abt how to review this (I think my best what-to-blog thoughts while driving), I was going to mention a girl I knew in college who was majoring in Physics AND in Philosophy – I have to thank her for making me having collision thoughts of ‘huh?! How is she going to do that and WHY? and whatever is she going to DO with it?’ 🙂

  3. OMG…I love you! You just make me so happy. This was such a fun review!!! And this: “(Initial reactions: I assume he is ‘hard’? I don’t think I know anything about him nor what he is written. I couldn’t even be sure he was a writer or a philosopher. How do I develop these ideas and what do I base them on?)”…this is exactly how I think, too!

    Extra little happy for me…this book already sits on our shelves. I bought it for the hubby after Dewey’s review last year. And now I am very much looking forward to reading it myself! 😀

    1. oh goodie! I can count this for the Dewey Challenge, too! I wonder how many books I read this year were reviewed by her and now, may never know. And how sad, she can’t contribute more to the discussion. Thank you Debi for your kind words and encouragement. you rock!

  4. This book sounds awesome! I’ve wanted to read Lehrer since Boyfriend and I got to see him speak at the Wisconsin Book Festival… gotta find a book soon 🙂

  5. I read his book HOW WE DECIDE at the beginning of the year and I loved it. I guess I have to pick this one up as well at some point. Yay for pop science.

  6. Yay for you enjoying it!!! And I TOTALLY have the same gut reaction to Proust, lol. But I’ve read two books w/ Proust in the title this year, and I’m eyeing de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life for next year. At this rate, in another decade I might be ready to try out some of his actual works. 😉

    1. Question for you or anyone… How is ‘Proust’ pronounced? My friend says ‘proooooost’ but I have it rhyme with ow, like ‘roust-about’?
      anyone, anyone? Maybe Wiki will tell me…

  7. Ooooh, must read. And, I was wondering how it’s pronounced, myself. Mentally, I pronounce it “proost”, but the French usually drop those last consonants and I’m not sure about the “ou” part.

    So, Care Bear, I made the irrational assumption that you were a mathematician. You’re an engineer? I LOVE engineers! My husband’s entire family are engineers and scientists — a biologist, an electrical engineer, a mechanical, a civil and then my husband, who has degrees in civil, bio-environmental (that one stunk — literally) and geotechnical. My grandfather was a civil engineer and lawyer. I could go on. I’m pushing my youngest toward engineering because he has the right kind of brain but we need lots of prayer because he’s a slacker. So cool that you’re an engineer. What kind?

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