Lehrer, Jonah 1982–

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Lehrer, Jonah 1982–

PERSONAL:

Born 1982. Education: Graduated from Columbia University, 2003; attended Oxford University.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Concord, NH. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Journalist. Seed magazine, editor-at-large. National Public Radio, Radio Lab, contributing editor; worked as a cook at Los Angeles's Melisse and New York's Le Cirque and Le Bernardin restaurants; Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.

WRITINGS:

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2007.

Author of the blog The Frontal Cortex. Contributor to periodicals and journals, including New Scientist, NOVA, ScienceNow, MIT Technology Review, Genetics, and Nature.

SIDELIGHTS:

Born in 1982, Jonah Lehrer went on to graduate from Columbia University in 2003 with a degree in neuroscience. He spent the following two years studying literature at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes scholar. Despite his studies in neuroscience and literature, he worked as a cook at several high-end restaurants, including Melisse in Los Angeles and at both Le Cirque and Le Bernardin in New York City. He is a contributing editor to National Public Radio's Radio Lab in New York. He also acts as an editor-at-large for Seed magazine. As a writer, Lehrer has contributed to a number of periodicals and journals, including New Scientist, NOVA, ScienceNow, MIT Technology Review, Genetics, and Nature. He is the author of the blog The Frontal Cortex.

Caroline Roberts, interviewing Lehrer on the Bostonist, asked how he came to combine neuroscience and literature. Lehrer replied: "It was born of indecision. I was a double major in college. I loved novels and neuroscience. I couldn't pick one. I was lucky enough to work in a great neuroscience lab for several years and had great mentors. There's lots of down time in a neuroscience lab. You're always waiting for an experiment to finish, so I'd bring in novels to read. I was assigned Proust for a literature class. We only had to read Swann's Way, but I really got swept away by the soap opera of it. It's really good melodrama at its core, a love story. So I spent a few months reading Proust while waiting for an experiment to finish, and that's when I first had the idea that Proust had anticipated my experiment with memory. The lab I worked at was studying the chemistry of memory, what happens to the brain when you make a memory. I began reading Proust and couldn't help but see connections to what I was doing in the lab."

Lehrer published his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, in 2007. The book claims that creative perception is a precursor to scientific findings. To support his thesis, Lehrer examines select works of Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman, August Escoffier, Paul Cézanne, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Igor Stravinsky to show how each in their own artistic craft were well aware of the neuro-workings of humans before scientists were able to make conclusive findings. For example, Lehrer points out Whitman's studies on brain anatomy, Stein's psychology experiments, and Woolf's extensive research into mental illness. These were subsequently applied in their works, providing an artistic flair to cold scientific data.

Lianne Habinek, reviewing the book in Open Letters Monthly, remarked that "if the premises sound at times slightly implausible, it is not for lack of trying on Lehrer's part. Each of his chapters follows roughly the same format: he begins with a bit of bio-historical background on his artist, introduces the contemporary neuroscientific milieu in which the artist worked, then demonstrates how modern science now knows the artist's intuitions to hold true." However, Habinek stated that "this book proves problematic in many areas, chief among which is Lehrer's treatment of the history of science. Lehrer often characterizes neuroscience as a number of brilliant ideas lying dormant—or, more generally, intentionally ignored—among vast arrays of incorrect or ill-conceived theories. The brilliant ideas, because they are correct, eventually find their way to the laboratory, are carefully tested, and finally hailed as they should rightly have been ages ago." Habinek also said that "elsewhere, Lehrer writes of scientists' work being ‘marginalized’ or ‘attacked’ by the prevailing scientific community, despite the fact that these brave rogue scientists would eventually be proven to have been right all along. Such characterizations of science are frequent within the historical community. … Indeed, it makes for a more compelling read to think of the lone scientist solving a problem against all odds, in the face of derision from his colleagues and under the threat of losing funding from his university." Habinek noted something else "distressing, not just in Lehrer's work but in the scientific culture in general, is the assumption that humanities criticism needs no special translation of its truth to the masses. Lehrer's use of literature is simply that: use of literature, the pulling of quotes to illustrate a scientific point, a selectivity that makes the words fall flat. Though he is adept at explaining scientific work clearly, concisely, and without sounding condescending … he does not devote the same energy to dealing with the artistic work."

Jenny Davidson, writing on Bookforum.com, remarked that "by far the best chapter in Lehrer's book concerns the great chef Auguste Escoffier and the science of taste." Davidson recorded that the coverage throughout his book is "uneven," adding that "Lehrer's view of neuroscience centers too much on his alma mater, Columbia (most of the scientists he cites are affiliated with the university), and his discussions of major figures like Melville, Woolf, and George Eliot cover little new ground. His basic approach involves showing that these artists intuit or anticipate later scientific discoveries: a persuasive claim, but one that locks him into pointing out broad homologies rather than identifying and narrating more specific connections between the arts and science." Davidson concluded, however, that Lehrer makes "excellent cases for the value of integrating the strengths of science, the arts, and the humanities into a single imaginative and intellectually stringent mode of inquiry."

Jonathon Keats, reviewing the book on Salon.com, opined that "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." Keats further mentioned that "Lehrer's book is worth discussing for this reason: It embodies an approach to the humanities and sciences that threatens the vitality of both." A contributor to Entertaining Research commented of the book: "I think I would have enjoyed the book more. In fact, if Lehrer just took the view point of examining these artists and their creations with the hindsight of what we know about the underlying neuroscience today, it would have made the book less inhomogeneous and more enjoyable. It is all those pretensions about creating a fourth culture (which would be truthful to the original ‘third culture’ ideas of C.P. Snow) that fail the book." In the Philadelphia Inquirer review, John Timpane observed that "Jonah Lehrer has written an enjoyable and stimulating book; he could fill a library with sequels. He is given to the overstatement of enthusiasm, but then, with a fertile subject like this, you'd be enthusiastic, too. And I don't understand why he limits himself to such recent artists." Timpane concluded that "poets get there first. Proust Was a Neuroscientist, is a sparkling introduction to the fact. Makes you wonder why folks have to be persuaded to pay attention to the poets of the moment." D.T. Max, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that "Lehrer is smart, and there are some fun moments in these pages. But while he is good at showing that Artist A's work preceded Biologist B's, he only rarely shows that A influenced B. So what he's written is not quite intellectual history, more like intellectual patterning. At the same time, I'm not sure all his conclusions follow from his data."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, October 15, 2007, Gilbert Taylor, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, p. 17.

Entertainment Weekly, November 2, 2007, Gregory Kirschling, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, p. 69.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2007, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2007, Jesse Cohen, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

New Scientist, November 24, 2007, Germaine Greer, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, p. 54.

New York Times Book Review, November 4, 2007, D.T. Max, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 2008, John Timpane, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

Publishers Weekly, June 11, 2007, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, p. 46; July 9, 2007, Andrew Martin, author interview, p. 40.

Science News, February 2, 2008, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, p. 79.

Wilson Quarterly, January 1, 2008, Anthony Aveni, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, p. 103.

Wired, October 23, 2007, Jennifer Hillner, author interview; November, 2007, Jennifer Hillner, "Art for Science's Sake," p. 42.

WWD, November 8, 2007, Vanessa Lawrence, "Weird Science," p. 4.

ONLINE

Bookforum.com,http://www.bookforum.com/ (April 18, 2008), Jenny Davidson, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

Bostonist,http://bostonist.com/ (November 13, 2007), Caroline Roberts, author interview.

Entertaining Research,http://mogadalai.wordpress.com/ (December 24, 2007), review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

Jonah Lehrer Home Page,http://www.jonahlehrer.com (April 18, 2008), author biography.

Kottke.org,http://www.kottke.org/ (February 22, 2008), Jason Kottke, author interview.

Mind Hacks,http://www.mindhacks.com/ (October 31, 2007), author interview.

Open Letters Monthly,http://openlettersmonthly.com/ (April 18, 2008), Lianne Habinek, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (November 20, 2007), Jonathon Keats, review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist.