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Body of Knowledge

February 6, 2009

Last night I finished Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist.  I’d picked it up as part of my reading on general “mind studies,” since, if you’re going to design an AI that can mimic a human mind, it helps to understand the meat ‘n’ chemicals version.  As I’ve posted before, I don’t see the goal of AI as being the replication of the human brain; there are too many things it does for us (and sometimes to us) that are based on biological imperatives which a machine will never have. 

Lehrer makes the case that many of the artists who progressed their forms were, in their own way, scientists – through observation and experimentation, they served as science’s “forward column,” arriving at conclusions about the human mind which were later proven correct when advances in technology enabled the “real” scientists to verify their results in the lab.  And that in many cases, the “shocks of the new” which these artists provided weren’t just random offenses against bourgeois decency for the sake of shock and offense – they were highly thought-out engineering projects, designed to reveal information about our brains and how we see and hear, projects which often required going against the grain of our ordinary and accepted ways of “sensing.”

He starts with Walt Whitman, who rejected the commonly held idea at the time that “mind” and “body” were separate, that the body was merely a palanquin for brain/head/spirit.  In “singing” of their unity, he shocked a world that believed the body was merely the devil’s workshop, a thing to be left behind for a land of harps and clouds – he both celebrated the body’s sexuality and looked unflinchingly on what war did to men’s bodies, and what that in turn did to their souls – neither of which was considered a “nice” subject for poetry.  In doing so, he became an influence on William James, father of “Pragmatism” – not meaning pragmatic as in, whatever it takes to win the war, but pragmatism as described by Lehrer here:

[James] thought that people should stop thinking of scientific theories as mirrors of nature, what he called “the copy version of truth.”  Instead, they should see its facts as tools, which “help us get into a satisfactory relation with experience.”  The truth of an idea, James wrote, is the use of an idea, its “cash value.”  Thus, according to the pragmatists, a practical poet could be just as truthful as an accurate experiment.  All that mattered was the “concrete difference” an idea produced in our actual lives.

George Eliot, Lehrer’s next subject, wrote both Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda in rejection of the philosophy of Positivism, a philosophy which claimed to be the “key to all mysteries,” seeking to discover a physics of human behavior with laws as immutable as those which make the earth revolve around the sun.  “According to their depressing philosophy,” Lehrer says, “we were nothing but life-size puppets pulled by invisible strings.”  Lehrer ties Eliot’s rejection of this idea of Man’s fixed and immutable state with the later discovery that the brain’s neurons, once thought “fixed” in state and number at birth, do indeed continue to grow as we age.  Eliot’s characters grow and change in ways that defy scientific theories that believed, in her words,  “that the relations of men to their neighbors may be settled with algebraic equations.”

He discusses Cezanne’s “nonfinito” paintings, using the example seen below. His earlier version is clearly a mountain, but the later version is more like an “idea” of a mountain, lacking the sort of photographic detail deemed necessary at the time to convince the viewer that he was “seeing” a mountain in a painting.  But given the title (“Montagne San Victoire”), the mountain becomes “visible.”


The painting on the right taps into our brain’s pattern recognition system, whereby we fill in the white spaces left by the artist with what we already know about what we’re seeing.

Cezanne, Stravinsky and Gertrude Stein are all held as examples of artists who, rather than setting out to destroy “art” or “standards,” were actually helping delineate the grammar of art and how the brain processes it – at first seeing/hearing/reading, “The Rite of Spring” or Stein’s poetry appears to be chaos and nonsense, but once you get past the fact that the needle isn’t in the groove you’re expecting, you can see that in fact, they are adhering to the rules of aesthetics, although the surface seems disordered because it’s not pleasing in the way of the familiar.  Lehrer goes on to reveal the progress in brain science that shows how and why our brains make us reject the unfamiliar (“that damn rock and roll!”) until, familiarity with the form’s internal logic being established, we welcome it – just as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” went from causing a riot to being featured in Disney’s “Fantasia.”  Lehrer quotes Stein from her autobiography:

When you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it.

The genesis of Lehrer’s book was in an article on Marcel Proust, and how Proust’s “search for lost time” was a forerunner of what science has learned about memory.  Proust bites into a Madeleine, and the taste of it serves as an associative hyperlink to the region in his brain, the “place in time,” when the memory of its taste was formed, its electrochemical relationship with memories formed at the same time bringing back his childhood memories.  But Proust makes the case, and Lehrer confirms it with scientific research, that memory is entropic, that the very fact of something being in the past begins to alter “what happened,” because our brain continuously alters the location and “cellular value” (my take, not a quote from the book) of memories.  So while savants and possessors of photographic memory may be able to retain names and dates and other static information, our sense of “what happened that day at the lake” continues to change, the cells and neurons responsible for forming the memory being replaced by new ones.  The relations of data which we call “memory” shift subtly over time until it becomes more and more difficult to remember if we had a “happy childhood” or not – we make a decision to remember it this way or that, our siblings or parents argue with us about “how it really was,” but none of us have the official record.  Eliot, too, works with this, as time and the changes it brings in Middlemarch alter both the characters and how they interpret what happened to them and why.

He ends with Virginia Woolf, whose novels diagrammed the Self and its internal processes, and which have a ring of truth about them which science has still not been able to verify – the nature/location/composition of the Self being, at this time, the final frontier of neuroscience.  Lehrer quotes Noam Chomsky: “It is quite possible – overwhelmingly probable, one might guess – that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”

He ends the book with a plea for the reunification of art and science – the modernists, he reminds us, were very interested in and conversant with the scientific advances and theories of the day, whereas today’s MFA farms have taught writers to examine not their characters and their internal lives, but to examine only the sentences “about” them, to focus on “language” rather than people.  Artists have lost the thread that made the modernists great – their connection to science.  “Every humanist should read Nature,” Lehrer states, an admirable goal for the well-rounded – but it must be noted Nature is not free to read on the Web, and that a personal subscription is $199 per year, putting it out of the reach of all but the most prosperous humanists…

He cites Ian McEwan’s Saturday as a novel that seeks to recapture the self-examining spirit of Virginia Woolf, a novel of the type he hopes to see more of, “one that seeks to discover relationships between the humanities and the sciences.”  I’d love to know what he thinks of Allegra Goodman’s Intuition, a novel about science, and scientists, that came out around the same time as Proust. 

Out of time again.  If I can make time and energy tonight, I want to write up something about a new book, Supersizing the Mind, as well as something on the new “Singularity University” – yet I also need to make time and energy to start Chapter 2 of the novel!


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