Proust Was a Neuroscientist

by Jonah Lehrer

Hardcover, 242 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $24 | purchase

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Proust Was a Neuroscientist
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Jonah Lehrer

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Book Summary

Details the contributions of an unlikely group of artists—including artist Paul C├ęzanne, chef Auguste Escoffier, writer Gertrude Stein, novelist Marcel Proust, and others—to an understanding of the inner workings of the human brain, arguing that art can play a key role in enhancing scientific discovery.

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Excerpt: Proust Was A Neuroscientist

Walt Whitman The Substance of Feeling

The poet writes the history of his own body.
— Henry David Thoreau

For Walt Whitman, the Civil War was about the body. The crime of the Confederacy, Whitman believed, was treating blacks as nothing but flesh, selling them and buying them like pieces of meat. Whitman’s revelation, which he had for the first time at a New Orleans slave auction, was that body and mind are inseparable. To whip a man’s body was to whip a man’s soul.
This is Whitman’s central poetic idea.We do not have a body, we are a body. Although our feelings feel immaterial, they actually begin in the flesh. Whitman introduces his only book of poems, Leaves of Grass, by imbuing his skin with his spirit, “the aroma of my armpits finer than prayer”:

Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance . . .
Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main Concern, and includes and is the soul

Whitman’s fusion of body and soul was a revolutionary idea, as radical in concept as his free-verse form. At the time, scientists believed that our feelings came from the brain and that the body was just a lump of inert matter. But Whitman believed that our mind depended upon the flesh. He was determined to write poems about our “form complete.” This is what makes his poetry so urgent: the attempt to wring “beauty out of sweat,” the metaphysical soul out of fat and skin. Instead of dividing the world into dualisms, as philosophers had done for centuries, Whitman saw everything as continuous with everything else. For him, the body and the soul, the profane and the profound, were only different names for the same thing. As Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Boston Transcendentalist, once declared, “Whitman is a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Herald.” Whitman got this theory of bodily feelings from his investigations of himself. All Whitman wanted to do in Leaves of Grass was put “a person, a human being (myself, in the later half of the Nineteenth Century, in America) freely, fully and truly on record.” And so the poet turned himself into an empiricist, a lyricist of his own experience. As Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass, “You shall stand by my side to look in the mirror with me.” It was this method that led Whitman to see the soul and body as inextricably “interwetted.” He was the first poet to write poems in which the flesh was not a stranger. Instead, in Whitman’s unmetered form, the landscape of his body became the inspiration for his poetry. Every line he ever wrote ached with the urges of his anatomy, with its wise desires and inarticulate sympathies. Ashamed of nothing,Whitman left nothing out. “Your very flesh,” he promised his readers, “shall be a great poem.” Neuroscience now knows thatWhitman’s poetry spoke the truth: emotions are generated by the body. Ephemeral as they seem, our feelings are actually rooted in the movements of our muscles and the palpitations of our insides. Furthermore, these material feelings are an essential element of the thinking process. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio notes, “The mind is embodied . . . not just embrained.” At the time, however, Whitman’s idea was seen as both erotic and audacious. His poetry was denounced as a “pornographic utterance,” and concerned citizens called for its censorship. Whitman enjoyed the controversy. Nothing pleased him more than dismantling prissy Victorian mores and inverting the known facts of science.

The story of the brain’s separation from the body begins with René Descartes. The most influential philosopher of the seventeenth century, Descartes divided being into two distinct substances: a holy soul and a mortal carcass. The soul was the source of reason, science, and everything nice. Our flesh, on the other hand, was “clocklike,” just a machine that bleeds. With this schism, Descartes condemned the body to a life of subservience, a power plant for the brain’s light bulbs.
In Whitman’s own time, the Cartesian impulse to worship the brain and ignore the body gave rise to the new “science” of phrenology. Begun by Franz Josef Gall at the start of the nineteenth century, phrenologists believed that the shape of the skull, its strange hills and hollows, accurately reflected the mind inside. By measuring the bumps of bone, these pseudoscientists hoped to measure the subject’s character by determining which areas of the brain were swollen with use and which were shriveled with neglect. Our cranial packaging revealed our insides; the rest of the body was irrelevant.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the promise of phrenology seemed about to be fulfilled. Innumerable medical treatisees, dense with technical illustrations, were written to defend its theories. Endless numbers of skulls were quantified. Twenty-seven different mental tttttalents were uncovered. The first scientific theory of mind seemed destined to be the last.
But measurement is always imperfect, and explanations are easy to invent. Phrenology’s evidence, though amassed in a spirit of seriousness and sincerity, was actually a collection of accidental observations. (The brain is so complicated an organ that its fissures can justify almost any imaginative hypothesis, at least until a better hypothesis comes along.) For example, Gall located the trait of ideality in “the temporal ridge of the frontal bones” because busts of Homer revealed a swelling there and because poets when writing tend to touch that part of the head. This was his data.
Of course, phrenology strikes our modern sensibilities as woefully unscientific, like an astrology of the brain. It is hard to imagine its allure or comprehend how it endured for most of the nineteenth century. Whitman used to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes on the subject: “You might as easily tell how much money is in a safe feeling the knob on the door as tell how much brain a man has by feeling the bumps on his head.” But knowledge emerges from the litter of our mistakes, and just as alchemy led to chemistry, so did the failure of phrenology lead science to study the brain itself and not just its calcified casing.
Whitman, a devoted student of the science of his day, had a complicated relationship with phrenology. He called the first phrenology lecture he attended “the greatest conglomeration of pretension and absurdity it has ever been our lot to listen to. . . .We do not mean to assert that there is no truth whatsoever in phrenology, but we do say that its claims to confidence, as set forth by Mr. Fowler, are preposterous to the last degree.”More than a decade later, however, that same Mr. Fowler, of the publishing house Fowler and Wells in Manhattan, became the sole distributor of the first edition of Leaves of Grass.Whitman couldn’t find anyone else to publish his poems. And while Whitman seems to have moderated his views on the foolishness of phrenology — even going so far as to undergo a few phrenological exams himself — his poetry stubbornly denied phrenology’s most basic premise. Like Descartes, phrenologists looked for the soul solely in the head, desperate to reduce the mind to its cranial causes. Whitman realized that such reductions were based on a stark error. By ignoring the subtleties of his body, these scientists could not possibly account for the subtleties of his soul. Like Leaves of Grass, which could only be understood in “its totality — its massings,” Whitman believed that his existence could be “comprehended at no time by its parts, at all times by its unity.” This is the moral of Whitman’s poetic sprawl: the human being is an irreducible whole. Body and soul are emulsified into each other. “To be in any form, what is that?”Whitman once asked. “Mine is no callous shell.”

Emerson Whitman’s faith in the transcendental body was strongly influenced by the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. When Whitman was still a struggling journalist living in Brooklyn, Emerson was beginning to write his lectures on nature. A lapsed Unitarian preacher, Emerson was more interested in the mystery of his own mind than in the preachings of some aloof God. He disliked organized religion because it relegated the spiritual to a place in the sky instead of seeing the spirit among “the common, low and familiar.” Without Emerson’s mysticism, it is hard to imagine Whitman’s poetry. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman once said, “and Emerson brought me to a boil.” From Emerson, Whitman learned to trust his own experience, searching himself for intimations of the profound. But if the magnificence of Emerson was his vagueness, his defense of Nature with a capital N, the magnificence of Whitman was his immediacy. All of Whitman’s songs began with himself, nature as embodied by his own body.
And while Whitman and Emerson shared a philosophy, they could not have been more different in person. Emerson looked like a Puritan minister, with abrupt cheekbones and a long, bony nose. A man of solitude, he was prone to bouts of selfless self-absorption. “I like the silent church before the service begins,” he confessed in “Self-Reliance.” He wrote in his journal that he liked man, but not men. When he wanted to think, he would take long walks by himself in the woods.
Whitman — “broad shouldered, rough-fleshed, Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr, and rank” — got his religion from Brooklyn, from its dusty streets and its cart drivers, its sea and its sailors, its mothers and its men. He was fascinated by people, these citizens of his sensual democracy. As his uncannily accurate phrenological exam put it, “Leading traits of character appear to be Friendship, Sympathy, Sublimity and Self-Esteem, and markedly among his combinations the dangerous fault of Indolence, a tendency to the pleasure of Voluptuousness and Alimentiveness, and a certain reckless swing of animal will, too unmindful, probably, of the conviction of others.” Whitman heard Emerson for the first time in 1842. Emerson was beginning his lecture tour, trying to promote his newly published Essays. Writing in the New York Aurora, Whitman called Emerson’s speech “one of the richest and most beautiful compositions” he had ever heard. Whitman was particularly entranced by Emerson’s plea for a new American poet, a versifier fit for democracy: “The poet stands among partial men for the complete man,” Emerson said. “He reattaches things to the whole.” But Whitman wasn’t ready to become a poet. For the next decade, he continued to simmer, seeing New York as a journalist and as the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle and Freeman. He wrote articles about criminals and abolitionists, opera stars and the new Fulton ferry. When the Freeman folded, he traveled to New Orleans, where he saw slaves being sold on the auction block, “their bodies encased in metal chains.” He sailed up the Mississippi on a side-wheeler, and got a sense of the Western vastness, the way the “United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” It was during these difficult years when Whitman was an unemployed reporter that he first began writing fragments of poetry, scribbling down quatrains and rhymes in his cheap notebooks. With no audience but himself, Whitman was free to experiment. While every other poet was still counting syllables, Whitman was writing lines that were messy montages of present participles, body parts, and erotic metaphors. He abandoned strict meter, for he wanted his form to reflect nature, to express thoughts “so alive that they have an architecture of their own.” As Emerson had insisted years before, “Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say ‘It is in me, and shall out.’” And so, as his country was slowly breaking apart, Whitman invented a new poetics, a form of inexplicable strangeness. A self- conscious “language-maker,” Whitman had no precursor. No other poet in the history of the English language prepared readers for Whitman’s eccentric cadences (“sheath’d hooded sharp-tooth’d touch”), his invented verbs (“unloosing,” “preluding,” “unreeling”), his love of long anatomical lists, and his honest refusal to be anything but himself, syllables be damned. Even his bad poetry is bad in a completely original way, for Whitman only ever imitated himself.
And yet, for all its incomprehensible originality, Whitman’s verse also bears the scars of his time. His love of political unions and physical unity, the holding together of antimonies: these themes find their source in America’s inexorable slide into the Civil War. “My book and the war are one,” Whitman once said. His notebook breaks into free verse for the first time in lines that try to unite the decade’s irreconcilables, the antagonisms of North and South, master and slave, body and soul. Only in his poetry could Whitman find the whole he was so desperately looking for:

I am the poet of the body And I am the poet of the soul I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters And I will stand between the masters and the slaves, Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike.

In 1855, after years of “idle versifying,” Whitman finally published his poetry. He collected his “leaves” — printing lingo for pages — of “grass” — what printers called compositions of little value — in a slim, cloth-bound volume, only ninety-five pages long. Whitman sent Emerson the first edition of his book. Emerson responded with a letter that some said Whitman carried around Brooklyn in his pocket for the rest of the summer. At the time, Whitman was an anonymous poet and Emerson a famous philosopher. His letter to Whitman is one of the most generous pieces of praise in the history of American literature. “Dear Sir,” Emerson began:

I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our western wits fat & mean. I give you joy of your free & brave thought. . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career.

Whitman, never one to hide a good review from “the Master,” sent Emerson’s private letter to the Tribune, where it was published and later included in the second edition of Leaves of Grass. But by 1860, Emerson had probably come to regret his literary endorsement. Whitman had added to Leaves of Grass the erotic sequence “Enfans d’Adam” (“Children of Adam”), a collection that included the poems “From Pent-up Aching Rivers,” “I Am He that Aches with Love,” and “O Hymen! O Hymenee!” Emerson wanted Whitman to remove the erotic poems from the new edition of his poetry. (Apparently, some parts of Nature still had to be censored.) Emerson made this clear while the two were taking a long walk across Boston Common, expressing his fear that Whitman was “in danger of being tangled up with the unfortunate heresy” of free love.
Whitman, though still an obscure poet, was adamant: “Enfans d’Adam” must remain. Such an excision, he said, would be like castration and “What does a man come to with his virility gone?” For Whitman, sex revealed the unity of our form, how the urges of the flesh became the feelings of the soul. He would remember in the last preface to Leaves of Grass, “A Backwards Glance over Traveled Roads,” that his conversation with Emerson had crystallized his poetic themes. Although he admitted that his poetry was “avowedly the song of sex and Amativeness and ever animality,” he believed that his art “lifted [these bodily allusions] into a different light and atmosphere.” Science and religion might see the body in terms of its shameful parts, but the poet, lover of the whole, knows that “the human body and soul must remain an entirety.” “That,” insisted Whitman, “is what I felt in my inmost brain and heart, when I only answer’d Emerson’s vehement arguments with silence, under the old elms of Boston Common.” Despite his erotic epiphany, Whitman was upset by his walk with Emerson. Had no one understood his earlier poetry? Had no one seen its philosophy? The body is the soul. How many times had he written that? In how many different ways? And if the body is the soul, then how can the body be censored? As he wrote in “I Sing the Body Electric,” the central poem of “Enfans d’Adam”:

O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you, I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,) I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my Poems, and that they are my poems.

And so, against Emerson’s wishes, Whitman published “Enfans d’Adam.” As Emerson predicted, the poems were greeted with cries of indignation. One reviewer said “that quotations from the ‘Enfans d’Adam’ poems would be an offence against decency too gross to be tolerated.” But Whitman didn’t care. As usual, he wrote his own anonymous reviews. He knew that if his poetry were to last, it must leave nothing out. It must be candid, and it must be true.

The Ghostly Limb In the winter of 1862, during the bloody apogee of the Civil War, Whitman traveled to Virginia in search of his brother, who had been injured at the Battle of Fredericksburg. This was Whitman’s first visit to the war’s front. The fighting had ended just a few days before, and Whitman saw “where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground.” The acrid smell of gun smoke still hung in the air. Eventually, Whitman found the Union Army hospital, its shelter tents bordered by freshly dug graves, the names of the dead scrawled on “pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt.” Writing to his mother, Whitman described “the heap of feet, arms, legs &c. under a tree in front of a hospital.” The limbs, freshly amputated, were beginning to rot.
After seeing the dead and dying of Fredericksburg, Whitman devoted himself to helping the soldiers. For the next three years, he volunteered as a wound dresser in Union hospitals, seeing “some 80,000 to 100,000 of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree.” He would nurse both Union and Confederate men. “I cannot leave them,” he wrote. “Once in a while some youngster holds on to me convulsively and I do what I can for him.” Whitman held the soldiers’ hands; he made them lemonade; he bought them ice cream and underwear and cigarettes; sometimes, he even read them poetry. While the doctors treated their wounds, Whitman nursed their souls.
All his life, Whitman would remember the time he spent as a volunteer in the hospitals. “Those three [wartime] years,” he later remembered in Specimen Days, his oral autobiography, “I consider the most profound lesson of my life.” Never again would Whitman feel so useful, “more permanently absorbed, to the very roots.” “People used to say to me, ‘Walt, you are doing miracles for those fellows in the hospitals.’ I wasn’t. I was . . . doing miracles for myself.” As always, Whitman transmuted the experience into poetry. He told Emerson that he wanted to write about his time in the hospitals, for they had “opened a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet.” In “Drum Taps,” his sequence of poems on the war — the only sequence of poems he never revised — Whitman describes the tortured anatomy he saw every day in the hospitals:

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood, Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side-falling head, His eyes are closed, his face pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump.

Whitman did look at the bloody stump. The war’s gore shocked him. Volunteering in the canvas-tent hospitals, he witnessed the violent mess of surgery: “the hiss of the surgeon’s knife, the gnawing teeth of his saw / wheeze, cluck, swash of falling blood.” Amid the stench of dying soldiers and unclaimed corpses, Whitman consoled himself by remembering that the body was not only a body. As a nurse, Whitman tried to heal what the surgeon couldn’t touch. He called these our “deepest remains.”

By the second year of the war, just as Whitman was learning how to wrap battle wounds in wet cotton, doctors working in Civil War hospitals began noticing a very strange phenomenon. After a soldier’s limb was amputated, it was not uncommon for him to continue to “feel” his missing arm or leg. The patients said it was like living with ghosts. Their own flesh had returned to haunt them.
Medical science ignored the syndrome. After all, the limb and its nerves were gone. There was nothing left to cut. But one doctor believed the soldiers’ strange stories. His name was Silas Weir Mitchell, and he was a “doctor of nerves” at Turner’s Lane Hospital in Philadelphia. He was also a good friend of Whitman’s. For much of their lives, the doctor and the poet wrote letters to each other, sharing a love of literature and medical stories. In fact, it was Weir Mitchell who, in 1878, finally diagnosed Whitman with a ruptured blood vessel in the brain, prescribing “mountain air” as medicine. Later on, Weir Mitchell financially supported the poet, giving him fifteen dollars a month for more than two years.
But during the Civil War, while Whitman was working as a nurse, Weir Mitchell was trying to understand these illusory limbs. The Battle of Gettysburg had given him a hospital full of amputee patients, and, in his medical notebook, Weir Mitchell began describing a great variety of “sensory ghosts.” Some of the missing limbs seemed unreal to the patients, while others seemed authentic; some were painful, others painless. Although a few of the amputees eventually forgot about their amputated limbs, the vast majority retained “a sense of the existence of their lost limb that was more vivid, definite and intrusive than that of its truly living fellow member.” The bodily illusion was more real than the body.
Although Weir Mitchell believed that he was the first person to document this phenomenon, he wasn’t. Herman Melville, twelve years earlier, had given Ahab, the gnarled sea captain of Moby-Dick, a sensory ghost. Ahab is missing a leg (Moby-Dick ate it), and in chapter 108, he summons a carpenter to fashion him a new ivory peg leg. Ahab tells the carpenter that he still feels his amputated leg “invisibly and uninterpenetratingly.” His phantom limb is like a “poser.” “Look,” Ahab says, “put thy live leg here in the place where mine was; so, now, here is only one distinct leg to the eye, yet two to the soul. Where thou feelest tingling life; there, exactly there, there to a hair, do I. Is’t a riddle?” Weir Mitchell, unaware of Melville’s prescience, never cited Ahab’s medical condition. He published his observations of the mystery in two neurology textbooks. He even published a special bulletin on the phenomenon, which the surgeon general’s office distributed to other military hospitals in 1864. But Weir Mitchell felt constrained by the dry, clinical language of his medical reports.He believed that the experience of the soldiers in his hospital had profound philosophical implications. After all, their sensory ghosts were living proof of Whitman’s poetry: our matter was entangled with our spirit. When you cut the flesh, you also cut the soul.
And so Weir Mitchell decided to write an anonymous short story, written in the first person. In “The Case of George Dedlow,” published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1866, Weir Mitchell imagines himself a soldier wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga, shot in both legs and both arms. Dedlow passes out from the pain.
When he wakes, Dedlow is in a hospital tent. He has no limbs left: they have all been cut off. Dedlow describes himself as a “useless torso, more like some strange larval creature than anything of human shape.” But even though Dedlow is now limbless, he still feels all of his limbs. His body has become a ghost, and yet it feels as real as ever. Weir Mitchell explains this phenomenon by referencing the brain. Because the brain and body are so interconnected, the mind remains “ever mindful of its missing [bodily] part, and, imperfectly at least, preserves to the man a consciousness of possessing that which he has not.” Weir Mitchell believed that the brain depended upon the body for its feelings and identity. Once Dedlow loses his limbs, he finds “to his horror that at times I was less conscious of myself, of my own existence, than used to be the case . . . I thus reached the conclusion that a man is not his brain, or any one part of it, but all of his economy, and that to lose any part must lessen this sense of his own existence.” In his short story, Weir Mitchell is imagining a Whitmanesque physiology. Since soul is body and body is soul, to lose a part of one’s body is to lose a part of one’s soul. As Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” “Lack one lacks both.” The mind cannot be extricated from its matter, for mind and matter, these two seemingly opposite substances, are impossibly intertwined.Whitman makes our unity clear on the very first page of Leaves of Grass, as he describes his poetic subject:

Of physiology from top to toe I sing not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the form complete is worthier far.

After the war, Weir Mitchell’s clinical observations fell into obscurity. Because phantom limbs had no material explanation, medical science continued to ignore the phenomenon. Only William James, in his 1887 article “The Consciousness of Lost Limbs,” pursued Weir Mitchell’s supernatural hypothesis. As Harvard’s first psychology professor, James sent out a short questionnaire to hundreds of amputees asking various questions about their missing parts (for example, “How much of the limb can you feel?” “Can you, by imagining strongly that it has moved, make yourself really feel as if it had moved into a different position?”). The results of James’s survey taught him only one fact about sensory ghosts: there was no general pattern to the experience of lost limbs. Every body was invested with its own individual meaning. “We can never seek amongst these processes for results which shall be invariable,” James wrote. “Exceptions remain to every empirical law of our mental life, and can only be treated as so many individual aberrations.” As Henry James, William’s novelist brother, once wrote, “There is a presence in what is missing.” That presence is our own.

Copyright © 2007 by Jonah Lehrer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.