Thursday, July 28, 2011

Jonah Lehrer on Neuroscience & Creativity

Jonah Lehrer is editor at Large for SEED Magazine and the author of HOW WE DECIDE, PROUST WAS A NEUROSCIENTIST and his latest IMAGINE. He graduated from Columbia University and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. and has written for The New Yorker, Nature, Wired, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. Also a Contributing Editor at Scientific American, he can be heard on National Public Radios Radio Lab.

TOWER REVIEW: What prompted you to pursue this intriguing subject?

JONAH LEHRER: The book was really a by-product of indecision. I had always loved literature and science and found myself increasingly torn when it came to choosing an undergraduate major. The brain was such an endlessly fascinating organ, but what about my favorite novels? Could I really choose between Jane Austen and kinase enzymes? So that is when I started thinking about ways to fuse these two interests. I wrote several terrible short stories stuffed full of synaptic acronyms. The particular epiphany that led to the book occurred in a lab. At the time, I was working in a lab that was studying the chemistry of memory. The manual labor of science can get pretty tedious, and so I started reading Proust while waiting for my experiments to finish. After a few hundred pages of melodrama, I began to realize that the novelist had these very modern ideas about how our memory worked. His fiction, in other words, anticipated the very facts I was trying to uncover by studying the isolated neurons of sea slugs. Once I had this idea about looking at art through the prism of science, I began to see connections everywhere. I would mutter about the visual cortex while looking at a Cezanne painting, or think about the somatosensory areas while reading Whitman on the body electric. Needless to say, my labmates mocked me mercilessly.

Q: The relationship between art and science is a long, if tenuous, one. What is the thread running through your choices for including people as divergent as Proust, Cezanne, Stravinsky, and Escoffier in exploring the relationships and discoveries of human consciousness, or that irreducible factor of human experience?

A: I'm afraid the thread is my own preferences and predilections. After I realized that Proust had anticipated these scientific theories, I suddenly started re-reading all my favorite novelists, poets and artists. What did Virginia Woolf intuit about consciousness? Why was Walt Whitman so obsessed with his body electric? Why did Cezanne paint in such an abstract style? Once I started asking these strange questions, I saw all sorts of connections. I realized that there was a whole group of artists that had discovered truths about the human mind--real, tangible truths that science is only now re-discovering. Of course, I don't intend my list to be exhaustive. These are not the only artists who were interested in the mind, or anticipated important facts about the mind. I hope that this book inspires other people to look at their favorite artists through the prism of neuroscience. The newfangled facts of science provide us with a whole new way to appreciate our fictions.

Q: The mind is a mysterious organ. You conclude that we may never know how or why a collection of neurons can become self aware, or be more than a sum of its parts. If we are essentially a fiction which we create by our attention and conscious awareness, can an understanding of this ever lead human evolution to diminish our obsession with the ego, and toward more compassion and creativity?

A: That would certainly be nice. But I wouldn't hold my breath. The ego is a tough thing to dislodge.

Q: I was both amused and amazed by your examples of split brain subjects, and how we are, in fact, two identities perceived as one. The example of the man whose brain hemisphere link was split, with only one half of his brain being in love with his wife, is classic. Is there some biological version of quantum entanglement going on in our perception of wholeness?

A: I don't think you need to invoke the quantum world to explain our sense of wholeness. The brain is great at confabulating, at subtly tweaking reality until it makes sense. That sense of confabulation is at the core of our identity. In this sense, we are a fiction that must be continually re-invented.

Q: In what way does science now need art to progress beyond its current stalemates, and how can this be accomplished?

A: In the book, I quote an E. O. Wilson line from his book Consilience where he talks about how the workings of social institutions are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics. That is a perfectly reasonable and utterly ridiculous sentence. Of course, human consciousness (and thus human culture) is ultimately a side-effect of jiggling atoms and quantum mechanics. To believe in science is to believe in materialism all the way down. But I think that sentence also reveals the silliness of the uber-reductionist framework. Take the human brain. I'd argue that something is lost when human experience is seen as nothing but the electrical interactions of a 100 billion neurons. What science sometimes forgets is that this isn't how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) Think of it this way: it's quite possible to take a soaring Mozart symphony and reduce it into a series of physical soundwaves. That's a nifty exercise, and you might even come up with some elegant physics equation that summarizes the sound of Mozart. But what happened to the music? The intangible beauty, the visceral emotion, the entire reason we listen in the first place. All is lost when the sound is reduced into its most elemental details. In other words, reductionism can leave out a lot of reality.

Q: Speaking of reducing things, what kind of recipes do you use personally to achieve this mysterious added flavor achieved by Escoffier, and what's your favorite?

A: My favorite thing to cook is embarrassingly simple: pasta with tomato sauce and parmesan. My secret is to add a tablespoon of ketchup (which is rich in umami) to the hot garlic oil, before I add my tomatoes. Of course, parmesan cheese is an umami bomb, so that's how I smuggle lots of umami into my pasta.


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