Jewish Journal

Q-&-A with Jonah Lehrer

'You can learn important things just by paying attention'

by Brad A. Greenberg

Posted on Dec. 13, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Jonah Lehrer. Photo by Lori Duff

Jonah Lehrer. Photo by Lori Duff

Jonah Lehrer has worked in the lab of a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist and as a line chef at the renowned New York restaurants Le Cirque 2000 and Le Bernardin. He's been a Rhodes scholar and, in late October, became a published author with his already widely acclaimed book "Proust Was a Neuroscientist." At 26, Lehrer is what The New York Times called "one of those young people who turn up in articles on how life is now so competitive that children no longer have time for jump-rope."

His book's thesis perfectly fits his divergent interests. An editor at large for Seed magazine, Lehrer could never choose between his two passions -- art and science. But while working in neuroscientists Eric Kandel's lab at Columbia University and reading Proust in his spare time, he had an epiphany: Artists have an uncanny ability to intuit future scientific predictions by detailing human experience.

Lehrer's book focuses on eight artists and their "discoveries," including Marcel Proust, who detailed the inaccuracy of memory; Paul Cezanne, who described how the brain fills in what a painting doesn't show; and Walt Whitman, who foretold that emotions are ephemeral.

"This is what makes his poetry so urgent: the attempt to wring 'beauty out of sweat,' the metaphysical soul out of fat and skin," Lehrer writes in the opening chapter. "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.'"

Already at work on his second book, which is scheduled for release in late 2008, Lehrer is a native Angeleno and son of community activist David Lehrer, who is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal. The Journal caught up with Jonah Lehrer before a recent book signing, and he discussed the tendency to overachieve, as well as why scientific discoveries often imitate decades-old artworks.

Jewish Journal: In your book, you are particular to refer to these works of art as intuitions, not predictions. Why?
Jonah Lehrer: [Art] is very different from science, which does try to predict the results of experiments -- you generate hypotheses, you have control variables. These artists were very rigorous in their own sense. They were very sensitive observers of experience, but they weren't trying to predict. They were trying to look at their experience, and introspect on it, and intuit on that. We tend to disregard experience and say, "Oh, that is just wishy-washy stuff." These artists demonstrate that you can learn important things just by paying attention.

JJ: Toward the end of the book, you write, 'You don't even exist.'
JL: That is one of these surreal ideas of neuroscience, which is that there is no cell that represents you, there is no discreet circuit from which you emerge. You are just a distributed parallel processor. You've got all these neurons doing their thing and you emerge somehow simultaneously from this helter-skelter of activity.
At the same time, it's not very meaningful to say that is all we are. Clearly we are self-conscious creatures. We feel like so much more, and there is a mystery there which science won't be able to solve: How the water of the brain becomes the wine of the mind.... That is the question that art is uniquely able to interrogate and try to solve.

JJ: What is the reaction when people find out you were a Rhodes scholar?
JL: I got the tattoo removed from my forehead. It's funny, you're young, and you get this thing and you can't help but think, "God, I'm the s***." And then you quickly realize in the real world people don't care about this. You are not going to be published in The New Yorker or The New York Times because of this. It's about what you can do.

JJ: Do you feel like you are still behind the eight ball?
JL: I don't think you can ever be in the position to not have status anxiety. That is part of the human condition. Philip Roth, I'm sure, wakes up every day and gets insecure. Well, maybe not, because he's Philip Roth. But it's part of being a writer: You can't help but be insecure. I am so full of self-loathing every day that I am just sitting trying to touch the keyboard.

JJ: Your dad, David, was regional director of the ADL for many years. What role did that play in shaping your Jewish identity?
JL: Certainly a big role. He'd always push Saul Bellow on me, and Philip Roth, and always tried to inculcate me -- look at all these Jewish writers, kind of thing -- once he realized I loved writing. The ADL was just part and parcel of this larger tradition he tried to involve us in, and certainly that is a tremendous gift, to see yourself as part of this culture.

JJ: How do you identify today?
JL: Certainly very attached to the cultural sides of things. Not exactly sure what I think about God. But I wouldn't be the first Jewish atheist.

JJ: Are there any scientific discoveries that people should be looking for in a book?
JL: You don't have to mine science to discover important things. Great art is great because it feels true, because it touches a nerve within us. That's why we are still reading 'Hamlet'; that's why we are still reading Homer; that's why we still look at Jackson Pollack's drip paintings -- because it literally touches a nerve within us.

JJ: How did you pick the other artists in the book?JL: It was pretty idiosyncratic. Once I had the idea, I would literally just pick up Walt Whitman and couldn't help but read him through the prism of neuroscience. So these are just eight artists I love and felt I could tell the best story about.

JJ: Do you feel like you have ruined the artistic experience?
JL: Am I like some annoying film studies major who took one film study class and now explains every movie? I certainly hope not. Obviously, what makes all this art great is that it works on so many levels and there is no one interpretation of it, and certainly not this interpretation. I hope I have just revealed a little bit of a new facet within the art.

The first chapter of "Proust Was a Neuroscientist" can be read online at here.

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