Jonah Lehrer: The Fourth Culture

April 02nd, 2008 | Category: Interviews

Jonah Lehrer In 1959, C. P. Snow lamented a chasm between what he called the Two Cultures: artsy types on one side and stuffy science folks on the other. Well, Jonah Lehrer has been trying to bring them back together. His book Proust was a Neuroscientist (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) makes large strides toward their collusion by showing how the insights of several artists, musicians, writers, and one chef were a step ahead of the science of their time. In spite of Sir Karl Popper’s insistence that “real” science be falsifiable (though even he respected the authority of the artist), art often tells us more about ourselves.

Noam Chomsky once said, “It is possible — overwhelmingly probable, one might guess — that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” Examples of the overlap between art and science are not difficult to unearth. World-renowned physicist Richard Feynman was known to draw, Philip K. Dick‘s A Scanner Darkly (for one example from Dick’s vast canon) explores possible effects of a corpus callosotomy, and Lehrer himself reveals many more in his article “The Future of Science is Art” from Seed Magazine, where he is Editor at Large.

Up against Lehrer, with his post at Seed, his oft-updated blog (The Frontal Cortex), and his well-written, well intriguing book, the rift between the two cultures doesn’t stand a chance.

Roy Christopher: How did the people in Proust was a Neuroscientist come together? Was James Joyce too easy an example? How about Philip K. Dick?

Buy This Book from Powell'sJonah Lehrer: I’m always a little embarrassed to admit just how idiosyncratic my selection process was for the eight artists in the book. Once I had this idea about artists anticipating the discoveries of modern neuroscience –- and I got that idea when I started reading Proust in a lab — I began to see connections everywhere. I’d 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. But, in general, my selection process could be boiled down to this: I began with my favorite artists and tried to see what they had to say about the mind. The first thing that surprised me was just how much they had to say. Virginia Woolf, for instance, is always going on and on about her brain. “Nerves” has to be one of her favorite words.

Joyce makes a few appearances in the book, but so much ink has already been spilt on Joyce and “consciousness” that I wanted to find something a little more surprising. And Philip K. Dick will definitely appear in the sequel, when I get around to writing it.

RC: In light of all of the parallels between the Two Cultures that you’ve documented, do you think that C. P. Snow’s insight was a fallacy?

SEED Magazine: The Future of Science is ArtJL: Of course, there are real differences between our Two Cultures. Artists speak with metaphors, brushstrokes and plot, while scientists rely on acronyms, experiments and control variables. Sometimes, the languages of art and science can be so different that it’s hard to imagine a consilience ever taking place. But I think that cheap and easy binary distinction is also a little misleading. For starters, artists often rely on experimentation while making art -– they’ll try out different approaches and see what “works” –- while scientists often depend on their imagination.

Finally, I’d add that you don’t have to go very back in time before this cultural distinction disappears. George Eliot, for instance, famously described her novels as a “a set of experiments in life.” Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, said that in her new novel the “psychology should be done very realistically.” Or look at Coleridge. When the poet was asked why he attended so many lectures on chemistry, he gave a great answer: “To improve my stock of metaphors.” In other words, the poet didn’t believe that art and science needed to be separated.

RC: Snow’s Third Culture has given way to John Brockman’s Third Culture. Do you think the latter will inspire a proper version of the former?

JL: They’re fundamentally different enterprises. I believe that a third culture should ultimately be about re-creating a dialogue between our two cultures, which is what C. P. Snow was referring to. John Brockman, on the other hand, believes that the job of a third culture is to translate science for the masses. (As he puts it, “Science is the only news”.) That’s certainly a worthy endeavor — educating the public about science is really, really important — but it’s not a Third Culture.

RC: Is there a cultural divide between East and West? I ask because it seems to me that Eastern cultures — specifically Japan — are more open to what we would consider noise. Your chapter on Stravinsky got me thinking about this.

JL: That’s an interesting idea. I’m not aware of any research on that subject, but it’s certainly a testable hypothesis. I’d only add that I think neuroscience is really beginning to discover the importance of culture. We’re slowly beginning to learn all of the different ways the inputs of the arts — from “American Idol” to Wagner — can literally shape the brain. In other words, ideas are powerful things.

RC: What are you working on next?

JL: I’m currently hard at work on a book that should be published next year. (I just knocked on wood, in case you couldn’t tell.) The book is still coming together, but it won’t involve Proust, unfortunately.

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