Archive for October 23rd, 2007

Proust Was a NeuroscientistWant help with science? Ask Virginia.

Jonah Lehrer, a 26-year-old Rhodes scholar, argues in his new book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, that scientists and artists can learn from each other. And he says one artist we can learn from is Woolf.

Lehrer’s premise is that in the process of doing their work, both scientists and artists search for truth. But while scientists find their truths while working in an actual laboratory, writers like Woolf find theirs while at work in the lab of the mind, as they put pen to paper. They use their artistic insights to make their own kind of scientific breakthroughs, breakthroughs so intuitively radical that scientists themselves may take years to catch up with them.

While Proust, the title character in Lehrer’s book, explored the accuracy and inaccuracy of human memory,  Woolf explored the fragility of the self and the vagaries of the human mind. She did so by inventing the stream of consciousness technique, which she developed in her post-World-War-I novels, beginning with Mrs. Dalloway.   

Woolf, he notes, illustrates the birdlike quality of the human mind, as her characters’ thoughts flit about, quickly moving from one topic to another, never resting for long on any one subject. The self emerges from this constant mental movement, she tells us, a “kind of whole made of shivering fragments.”

Lehrer tells us that Woolf’s view of the way the brain works matches recent scientific findings. An experience only lasts for about 10 seconds in short-term memory, he notes: “After that, the brain exhausts its capacity for the present tense, and its consciousness must begin anew, with a new stream.”

There’s more ground-breaking science in Woolf’s novels. Remember the artist Lily in To the Lighthouse? She complains that she is always of two minds: “Such was the complexity of things … to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now.”

Well, Lehrer explains how science took nearly 40 years to catch up with Woolf’s art. It was the early 1960s before two neuroscientists discovered “the divided mind, and the way we instinctively explain away our divisions.” It was a discovery that had a profound impact on neuroscience, according to the author.  

So what kind of help can scientists expect from Woolf? Lehrer has an answer.

“Virginia Woolf isn’t going to help you finish your lab experiment,” he says in a Q&A in Wired Magazine. “What she will do is help you ask your questions better.”

It’s no wonder Lehrer has such an appreciation for Woolf, including her among just five authors he discusses in his book. After all, he studied with Woolf biographer Hermione Lee at Oxford.

Read a review in the Los Angeles Times.

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