Jewish Journal

Science imitating art

by Brad A. Greenberg

October 26, 2007 | 10:04 am

I was flipping through the new Wired yesterday and I came across a Q&A with Jonah Lehrer. The son of former Los Angeles ADL chief David Lehrer, Jonah is an editor at large for Seed and in his new book, “Proust was a Neuroscientist,” he argues that artists predict the scientific future.

Wired: Do you really think that we’ll find answers to science’s Big Questions in the arts?

Lehrer: Virginia Woolf isn’t going to help you finish your lab experiment. What she will do is help you ask your questions better. Proust focused on problems that neuroscience itself didn’t grapple with until relatively recently — questions of memory that couldn’t be crammed into Pavlovian reinforcement: Why are memories so unreliable? Why do they change so often? Why do we remember only certain aspects of the past?

Wired: Has the separation of the disciplines held them back?

Lehrer: It has affected both cultures adversely. You read the diary of Woolf and the letters of Cézanne and realize they thought they were discovering something true—in the same real way that science is true—but we don’t think of artists that way anymore. The separation has also led science to neglect this other side of the mind. It’s important to acknowledge that when you discuss the brain only in terms of proteins and enzymes, you’re missing something.


Art, obviously, also has a lot to say about God, religion, faith, et al. I’m not really talking about Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” or Michaelangelo’s “David” but the themes of art and literature that reveal how we see our place in creation and define our relationship with the divine. “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Divine Comedy” are easy examples. Anybody have others?

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