Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

MISREADING MINDS

What does Proust have to do with brain science? Plenty, say two books.

Jenny Davidson


In a mesmerizing film clip from 1975, the British anatomist John Zachary Young dissects a squid just smaller than his forearm. (The clip can be seen online at http://www.science.smith.edu/departments/NeuroSci/courses/bio330/squid.html.) Young wields a pair of shears with considerable brio as he cuts open the mantle cavity and uncovers the nerves that radiate, starlike, beneath the skin. Some forty years earlier, shortly before he first identified the squid giant axon, Young had mistaken these transparent tubular structures (as much as a millimeter in diameter) for blood vessels, but in fact they turned out to be nerve fibers, mammoth axons whose stimulation with electrodes makes the squid’s entire body contract. Young’s discovery contributed directly to the experimental work on electrical impulses and nerve contraction that earned Andrew Fielding Huxley, John Eccles, and Alan Hodgkin the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1963.

Writers don’t use scissors and scalpels to cut brains open and look inside, but like neuroscience, literature may take the mind as its object of inquiry. The name of one novelist in particular seems to have become the watchword for those interested in exploring parallels between the disciplines, and Marcel Proust’s musings on mind spur two happy recent couplings between neuroscience and the humanities. In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf—a professor of child development at Tufts, where she directs the Center for Reading and Language Research—tackles the problem of what happens when children can’t learn to read. Proust Was a Neuroscientist showcases the exuberant intelligence of Jonah Lehrer—an editor at large of Seed magazine who also blogs at the Frontal Cortex—as he explores the ways in which writers, painters, and other artists around the turn of the twentieth century anticipated the discoveries of modern neuroscience.

The central dilemma Wolf explores arises from the fact that “although it took our species roughly 2,000 years to make the cognitive breakthroughs necessary to learn to read with an alphabet, today our children have to reach those same insights about print in roughly 2,000 days.” Her story takes in everything from the lists of words on clay tablets used by the ancient Sumerians to teach children to read, to brain-imaging studies that show readers responding quite differently to meaningless letterlike symbols than to letters in a familiar alphabet. The brain even turns out to be “differentially organized for different writing systems,” a fact most clearly demonstrated by readers of Japanese, different parts of whose brains are activated depending on whether they are processing the syllabic writing called kana or the Chinese-influenced word-based script called kanji.

Wolf’s most valuable insights cluster around what happens when learning goes off course. The term word blindness was coined by researchers in the 1870s, and Wolf ably chronicles twentieth-century developments in the study of dyslexia and related processing disorders. Both sensitive and sensible, Wolf shows that reading disorders are more likely to stem from multiple genes than from a single place on the genome and lays out the potentially devastating consequences of the failure to achieve reading fluency, which often goes unnoticed by teachers and parents. The reading brain’s great benefit to human life is, in Wolf’s lovely formulation, “the secret gift of time to think,” a rich form of second-order processing that can take place only once reading becomes an ingrained habit.

Lehrer attributes the genesis of his own book to the experience of reading Proust while working in a neuroscience lab. There he realized that despite “the jarring contrast of forms,” the novelist and the neuroscientists “were actually saying the same thing.” Lehrer is a lively and engaging guide to the landscape of mind, casually riffing on CÚzanne and the science of vision or jumping from a discussion of Stravinsky’s dissonance to the parenthetical observation that “hair cells are sensitive to sounds of atomic dimensions. We can literally hear Brownian motion, the random jostle of atoms.”

By far the best chapter in Lehrer’s book concerns the great chef Auguste Escoffier and the science of taste. Escoffier’s invention of demi-glace (Lehrer lavishes all his verbal riches on the techniques with which Escoffier consolidated modern French cuisine) provides an opportunity for unpacking the secrets of “deliciousness,” or umami, a sensation first identified by a Japanese chemist who in 1909 published the results of his quest for the unknown taste that makes dashi, the kelp broth used as a base in Japanese cooking, so savory. Deliciousness turns out to be the taste of L-glutamate, “the dominant amino acid in the composition of life” and the secret of MSG, used to intensify flavor. Glutamate is what gives fish sauce and soy sauce and the British yeast spread Marmite their pungency and what makes prosciutto and parmesan so appealing. Escoffier’s method of deglazing unlocks glutamate; unlike the tastes of sweet, salt, sour, and bitter, which are sensed in relation to one another, umami is sensed all by itself. (It is the “flavor of denatured protein,” in Lehrer’s appealing phrase.)

The topic allows Lehrer to weave together magically different elements of the story of taste, from Nobel laureate Richard Axel’s mapping of the sense of smell in fruit flies to the importance of context for framing sensations. Lehrer notes that Escoffier was incorrect to believe, along with many cooks, that searing a steak seals in the meat’s juices. A seared steak sizzles because its own liquid is evaporating, and it tastes juicier only because the smell of its searing makes us drool in anticipation.

Click to enlarge

Engraving of a giant squid, artist and date unknown.

Both books are uneven. 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.

Despite her book’s title, Wolf offers no account of the squidrelated investigations that contributed so much to modern neuroscience, and she tends to use the biological language of species and adaptation to refer to what are primarily cultural developments. It is distinctly misleading, for instance, to call hieroglyphic writing systems “the first major adaptation in the evolution of the reading brain”; elsewhere, she clarifies things by observing that our brains are virtually identical structurally to those of nonreading Homo sapiens forty thousand years ago, but a term like plasticity might have served her better than adaptation. As thoughtful as Wolf is, she can also come across as overly earnest; those with a serious interest in the early history of the written word would do better with Alberto Manguel’s playful and encyclopedic A History of Reading (1996), a book she rightly praises.

In each case, though, the flaws are outweighed by remarkable strengths. Wolf displays extraordinary passion and perceptiveness concerning the reading brain, its miraculous achievements and tragic dysfunctions; and her lovingly selected literary quotations cover a wonderfully wide range: from Plato all the way to Rick Riordan’s entertaining young-adult novel The Lightning Thief, the story of the modern-day child of a Greek god whose dyslexia results from a mind “hard-wired for ancient Greek” and whose ADHD is merely a symptom of “battlefield reflexes” meant to keep him alive in a “real fight.” Lehrer has a gift for narrating scientific discoveries and explaining their significance, and the best stretches of Proust Was a Neuroscientist (like the description of the experiment in which Mriganka Sur rewired a ferret’s brain so as to plug information from its retina into its auditory cortex) put him fairly in the company of such writers as Richard Fortey, Armand Marie Leroi, and Oliver Sacks.

Proust himself warned against the hazards of the kind of reading that substitutes itself for “the personal life of the spirit” rather than waking us to that life, thereby turning truth into “a material thing, deposited between the leaves of books like honey ready-made by others.” Neither Lehrer nor Wolf is likely to fall victim to any such habit, and both have written books to stimulate rather than to stupefy. Lehrer ends with a galvanizing coda on the continuing reverberations of C. P. Snow’s 1959 call for an end to the “mutual incomprehension” between the two cultures associated with science and the arts. The third culture that arrived in Snow’s wake, Lehrer observes, constituted itself not by way of a true dialogue between science and the arts but rather as a movement of high-profile scientists concerned to bring their work to life for a broader public. Lehrer celebrates the achievements of Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene, and their ilk, but he’s blunt about the limitations of a cohort that tends to express antagonism toward anything it perceives as unscientific though is just as frustrated by postmod ernists who have “written off science as nothing but another text” as by scientists arguing that we should think of art as “a symptom of our biology.” Both he and Wolf make 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.

Jenny Davidson is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

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