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Proust, Cezanne, Sacks, and Umami - Lehrer's World
November 9, 2007 12:16 PM   Subscribe

Jonah Lehrer is becoming one of the most interesting science writers around. The 26-year-old Rhodes scholar and former Le Bernardin cook just published his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist [first chapter excerpt - NYT], an investigation of the ways poets, novelists, and artists accurately modeled the brain and memory before science did. This week he hilariously reenacted Escoffier's distillation of umami-rich veal stock [hit the audio link] with NPR's Robert Krulwich of Radio Lab. He also just published a very insightful profile of Oliver Sacks in SEED (addressing the pioneering neurologist's own recent struggles with an eye ailment) and writes a wide-ranging science blog. A new writer to watch.
posted by digaman (46 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's also a Q & A with Lehrer in this month's Wired.
posted by digaman at 12:18 PM on November 9, 2007


I heard that umami story. It was interesting, but the amount of "so-called 'scientists', AMIRITE" in there was overwhelming and the description of the Proust book makes it sound similar.

The point of the umami story was not "scientists are closed minded ivory tower residents and it took the power of WORLD-CLASS CHEFERY to open their minds". The point of that story was "sometimes a factoid gets ingrained and it takes a person with an unusual viewpoint, in this case a person who is BOTH a scientist AND a cook, to see the light".

Krulwich usually does a pretty good job of explaining things humorously but not too condescendingly, but he really botched the umami thing, I thought. Lehrer's influence?
posted by DU at 12:38 PM on November 9, 2007


Lehrer's synaesthetic praise of umami as a "low resonant chord on a cello" made it worth listening for me.
posted by digaman at 12:49 PM on November 9, 2007


I was curious about that flavor and everything, so i bought some pure MSG and tasted it. It was instantly an recognizable flavor, but frankly I think it's over rated, I mean the way people go on about this being revolutionary, making everything taste "better" is ridiculous, it would taste awful on ice cream, for example. It does make things like meat and potatoes more interesting but not, like, revelatory.
posted by delmoi at 1:50 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks to a week-long string of concidences involving a non-stick pan, Whitman, black-eyed peas, and the very first chapter cited above, I just missed hearing Lehrer talk last night.

I'm disappointed, but I had a fun evening anyway, so I guess it's all right.
posted by tangerine at 1:54 PM on November 9, 2007


The point of that story was "sometimes a factoid gets ingrained and it takes a person with an unusual viewpoint, in this case a person who is BOTH a scientist AND a cook, to see the light".

That is a rather annoying thing about historical science writing, like the people who believed in phlogiston or aether were morons or something. I mean Mendeleev, who is obviously a smart guy, and his periodic table really helped advance chemistry and our understanding of the world belived in the Aether, in fact he thought the Aether might be composed of element 0, which would a Nobel gas above helium.
posted by delmoi at 2:00 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


In this background piece about Lehrer some of his claims sound utterly ridiculous. E.g., "Gertrude Stein’s experimental writing presaged Noam Chomsky’s work on grammar, while Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” anticipated discoveries by neurologists that what the mind at first rejects as ugly it later perceives as beautiful, once the underlying patterns have been recognized." I have not read Lehrer's book and he is said to be a very smart man. But Gertrude Stein's writing has some substantial connection to Chomskyan grammar? I don't think so. The author may be able to detect relationships between the two, but that does mean that one somehow prefigured the other. Gertrude Stein's writing has more connection to the building where Noam Chomsky has his office.
posted by cogneuro at 2:03 PM on November 9, 2007


It may help you in your argument to actually read the book, cogneuro -- otherwise you're just making snap judgements based on superficial impressions. Similarly, delmoi, you've confused "historical science writing" with a comment on MetaFilter. It's fine to dislike Lehrer's writing, but trashing it -- along with the whole genre! -- on the basis of what someone else said here is just beside the point.

I was curious about that flavor and everything, so i bought some pure MSG and tasted it. It was instantly an recognizable flavor, but frankly I think it's over rated, I mean the way people go on about this being revolutionary, making everything taste "better" is ridiculous, it would taste awful on ice cream, for example. It does make things like meat and potatoes more interesting but not, like, revelatory.

I was curious about that flavor and everything, so I bought some pure salt and tasted it. It was instantly an recognizable flavor, but frankly I think it's over rated, I mean the way people go on about this being revolutionary, making everything taste "better" is ridiculous, it would taste awful on ice cream, for example. It does make things like meat and potatoes more interesting but not, like, revelatory.
posted by digaman at 2:12 PM on November 9, 2007


...it would taste awful on ice cream, for example.

Salt on ice cream is fantastic. As is balsamic vinegar. I've had both.
posted by vacapinta at 2:20 PM on November 9, 2007


I shall read the book (not much happening in the chapter posted at the NY Times site, in my opinion). My brain is open. But some people can find connections between any two arbitrary things. I would certainly love to hear Chomsky's response. Probably *shrug*.
posted by cogneuro at 2:21 PM on November 9, 2007


Lehrer's book got a pretty negative review at Nature (probably requires subscription). An exerpt:
Call me old-fashioned, but neuroscience surely needs at least some indirect involvement with the greyish–pink stuff inside heads? However valid in their own way, painting, cooking, and writing novels, poems and music simply aren't neuroscience. Even cognitive science would be pushing it. Where are the methodology, the experimentation, the data and the hypothesis testing? "The impression is for the writer what experimentation is for the scientist," said Proust. But impressions are neither experiments nor science. The conceit remains exactly that, if the term 'neuroscientist' is to retain any serious meaning.
posted by pombe at 2:30 PM on November 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'm sure artists got alot of things right before scientists did. I'm also sure they got alot of things wrong, and then had to wait for science to figure out which was which...

The unami story is pretty neat though.
posted by Hutch at 2:48 PM on November 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


Pombe, Lehrer earned his Rhodes (in part) by working in the neurology lab of Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. So that doesn't fly as a critique of the author. As a critique of the book, that passage reminds me very much of criticisms of Sacks books like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which combine clinical case histories with musings on everything from music to painting. Luckily for all of us, there is room in literature for meditations on science that wouldn't pass muster as controlled studies in a science journal.
posted by digaman at 2:53 PM on November 9, 2007


Oh lord, I was afraid of something like this. The most recent interviews with Sacks I've heard he's said something like 'if I last....' toward the end of every one. Survival rates for ocular melanoma are something like 50% ten years after diagnosis, I see-- which is 18 months ago in Sack's case.
posted by jamjam at 2:53 PM on November 9, 2007


I believe Sacks' treatment has been effective, jamjam. He still has a hole in his visual field (a "scotoma") but the melanoma is gone, as far as I know.
posted by digaman at 2:58 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Digaman - I didn't know that Lehrer had worked for Eric Kandel. In any event I didn't read the review as a criticism of the author. It seemed more that the criticism was that the book overreached in trying to tie art to neuroscience - that while art may illustrate principles of neuroscience it isn't science, per se.
posted by pombe at 3:09 PM on November 9, 2007


I just noticed Lehrer's writing last week, after hearing him on the Radio Lab episode Musical Language (second bit, "Sound as Touch"), where he does indeed convey a (fascinating, I think) perspective on the Rite of Spring premiere.

I'll be reading his book. Good post. (His other stuff on the Seed site is here.)
posted by LooseFilter at 3:56 PM on November 9, 2007


delmoi, you are completely missing the point about umami, though your little experiment with MSG is an interesting insight to your thought process. The idea behind umami isn't that it tastes so great and it makes everything else great. It doesn't do that any more than the four basic tastes sweet, salt, or bitter do. The incredible idea is that it actually is one of the basic tastes along with the other four I've listed. That's the revolutionary part. Sprinkling MSG on food won't automagically make it taste better any more than sprinkling it on your dick will make you a better lover. Considering umami one of the basic tastes was revolutionary when I was taking food science classes back in the early 80's, and the backlash was great. There were huge cultural reasons why it wasn't accepted way beyond altering what the western world had believed for years.
posted by Eekacat at 4:18 PM on November 9, 2007


Precisely, eeka.

Pombe, having done both art and science at his young age, Lehrer knows that art and science are not the same thing. Only in his title does he assert a bald equivalence. (Metafilter: Asserting a bald equivalence.) He's building a metaphoric bridge between the two, and he does a fine job that illuminates both, in my humble opinion.
posted by digaman at 4:36 PM on November 9, 2007


Eekacat: My thought process? You mean that I'd rather experience something rather then read about it? As far as I can tell umami is a flavor that tastes best when written about.
posted by delmoi at 4:38 PM on November 9, 2007


Delmoi, you're being disingenuous or willfully opaque, but that's not a shock. Umami, like the other primary colors of taste, tastes best when it's enhancing other flavors. I don't know what the crystallization of bitter would look like chemically, but I sure wouldn't want to put a 1/4 teaspoon of it on my tongue, nor would doing so explain why the bitterness in apertifs like Lillet makes them such a perfect before-dinner drink. Food thrives on the subtle interplay between these primary colors. Ever have mushrooms on your steak? Mushrooms make even cheaper cuts of meat taste more luxurious and sapid because of the umami/glutamate content. That's a better way to appreciate umami in its actual context than dumping a jar of Accent on your tongue.
posted by digaman at 4:49 PM on November 9, 2007


"Sapid": Huh. Learn something new every day.
posted by cgc373 at 4:56 PM on November 9, 2007


My thought was exactly the same as digaman's in response to delmoi's accusation of umami of overratedness. Salt is clearly amazingly tasty and enhances and amplifies the taste of practically everything, but particularly the savory (in the broad sense) foods which also benefit from umami.

At any rate, I think the radio piece was hard on the scientists to the point of inaccuracy, in seemingly saying that the scientific community Orwellianly denied the possibility of a common flavor to what we now know are umami foods, a flavor which they'd all experienced themselves. I imagine they just thought it must come elsewhere than from a specific taste bud, presumably largely from the smell component of flavor.
posted by abcde at 5:26 PM on November 9, 2007


This is Lehrer building that metaphorical bridge in his very sharply observed Sacks profile:

"Music has also played a crucial role in Sacks's work as a neurologist. In his writings, he uses music as a metaphor for his unusual approach to medicine. He cites a Novalis aphorism--"Every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution"--in several books, usually when discussing the therapeutic powers of music. But it's clear that Sacks also believes in a deeper, less literal connection between medicine and music, which is why Musicophilia reads like a retrospective. Music encapsulates two of the most essential aspects of his work: listening and feeling. The art form is the model for his method. As a doctor, Sacks is exquisitely attentive, not just to the symptoms, but also to the person. He treats each patient like a piece of music, a complex creation that must be felt to be understood. Sacks listens intensely so that he can feel what it's like, so that he can develop an "intuitive sympathy" with the individual. It is this basic connection, a connection that defies explanation, that allows Sacks to heal his patients, letting them recover what has been lost: their sense of self.

Of course Sacks is still a neurologist, intimate with the folds of the brain and the advances in neuroscience toward understanding our relationship with music. He knows that how we experience music is just an emanation of the temporal lobe, a side effect of neural electricity. But Sacks remains most interested in what anatomy lessons alone can't explain. 'There is also a certain danger here,' he observes. 'A danger that the art of observation may be lost, and the richness of the human context ignored.'"

posted by digaman at 5:34 PM on November 9, 2007


If you like the theme of art exploring important ideas before science, check out art and physics by Shlain. Some of it is thin, but much of it holds together, and it's a well written, thought provoking read.
posted by Berkun at 5:46 PM on November 9, 2007


delmoi, your thought process seems to include willfully missing the point. Always. Here is exhibit #1:

As far as I can tell umami is a flavor that tastes best when written about.
posted by delmoi


Why don't you drink some vinegar, eat some quinine, salt, and sugar and tell us that those 4 flavors really taste better when written about. Really, that's the same thing.
posted by Eekacat at 6:58 PM on November 9, 2007


Thanks you for the link to the Sacks profile. Very timely as I am currently reading Musicophilia. (So far I'm really enjoying it, but I like most of Sacks' stuff.)
posted by trip and a half at 7:19 PM on November 9, 2007


er... "Thank you..."
posted by trip and a half at 7:43 PM on November 9, 2007


You're welcome, trip. I interviewed Sacks myself about the book.
posted by digaman at 11:04 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


“Why don't you drink some vinegar, eat some quinine, salt, and sugar and tell us that those 4 flavors really taste better when written about. Really, that's the same thing.”

Yeah, it's as if he just didn't understand the part where umami is a fundamental flavor. To be fair, though, I've seen a number of writers describe umami as not a flavor, but a metaflavor that makes other flavors taste better. Which I think is incorrect, but if that's what imprinted itself on delmoi's mind, then you can see how he come to the conclusions he's reached.

To me, obviously umami is a fundamental flavor. Not so obvious that I was aware that it specifically was missing from the list of fundamental flavors. But I was aware that the list was missing something. But my preferences are very, very strongly for umami flavors, so it makes sense that I would look at the list of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter and think, hmm, but the food I really love isn't quite described by any of those flavors. Salty, maybe.

I suspect the reason that some writers describe umami as a metaflavor—that is, that it makes other flavors taste better—is because that's been the common notion about MSG. And you can how that came about, given that we didn't recognize anything more than the four classic tastes and so whatever it was that MSG was doing could only be acting as a metaflavor, right?

But, no. We like umami for itself. Added to foods that don't have it, it makes them taste better for the same reason that adding sugar or salt often makes foods taste better. Umami indicates proteins, for which our body has a basic and strong need, just as it does with calories from sugar and salt. So, generally speaking, we're primed to enjoy the addition of those flavors in general.

I suspect this isn't as true with sour, because sour means a number of things, sometimes good and sometimes not as good. And bitter, of course, is a taste we're generally inclined to avoid, because alkaloids are bitter and they're the primary class of toxins that plants use to discourage animals from eating them.

“That is a rather annoying thing about historical science writing, like the people who believed in phlogiston or aether were morons or something.”

Interesting that you would say that. I've found that for all their typical faults, non-scientists who are science writers tend to avoid this error and are usually pretty sympathetic to historical thought. It's really the scientists who tend to be arrogant about present knowledge and sneeringly dismissive of past, disproven ideas. I think this is a product of the way in which science is taught—but it occurs to me that it may be an inevitable by-product of the peer review process and all that it implies.

At any rate, you're quite right that the scientists and philosophers of the past who believed things we now believe are wrong were not idiots. Almost without exception, the dominant scientific ideas of the past were very reasonable for their time and given what they knew.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:59 AM on November 10, 2007


“just as it does with calories from sugar and salt.”

That was worded badly, just in case anyone thought I meant we need calories from salt. I meant that we also have a basic need for salt.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:00 AM on November 10, 2007


There seems to be a rush of neuroscientists trying to flag a corner in every possible field of study. Neuroeconomics etc. I'm not feeling very enthusiastic about that.

A friend described his frustration with his thesis about brain imaging as like trying to figure out ocean life by looking at the waves on the surface. The distance between things we can measure well and the questions that people have about the mind is so huge. And another friend is currently trying to write hers Master's thesis' discussion part after ten pages of EEG results of brain background activity. Yes, there is a bit more desynchronization in that area in this task compared to another task, but what does it mean? All you can say, is that there were similar studies where results were same or different and wonder what the next research will reveal. You can do a career there while being very vague about what is the mechanism that these images reveal and just labeling the data carefully: 'this was a short-term memory experiment, we found increased activity in here here and here'. And all the data goes through massive statistical machinery full of kludges and ad-hoc fixes that no-one of the users understand anymore. The good-at-statistics researcher is away at the moment...

Then, when people have more general questions about the mind, the distance between actual research and these questions is so huge, that 'neuroscientific' answer easily approaches any answer that people thinking about thinking could have thought before, and you can bet that if you have an idea about memory, Proust meandered there too. Neuroscientific input to those questions comes mainly from those labels in the data. 'Yes, we have done extensive research on memory. There was activation mostly there, there and there'. Very interesting. How it works?

After this trash-talking I admit being a cognitivist myself.
posted by Free word order! at 7:07 AM on November 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm halfway through this book, after seeing Lehrer talk at Gibson's Bookstore in downtown Concord, NH, where Lehrer and I both live. (I don't know him.)

His talk was fascinating. He just spoke off-the-cuff about the stuff in the book, talking about umami (I suspect because it's the easiest of the stories in the book to illustrate to a non-science-educated crowd). Then he did a Q&A and talked about stuff like how stress decreases neurogenesis (did you know your brain made new neurons? I didn't) - somebody in the audience asked what the best way to increase neurogenesis was, and he said something like, Electroshock therapy - but there are some drawbacks to that you might not like. Then he talked about SSRIs and how they work, and what we know and don't know about that. I found him funny, insightful, and approachable.

The book is easy to read and follow, and is absolutely NOT saying that art is more insightful than science, or that scientists are blinkered morons, or anything of the sort. Here's an excerpt:
How did Rakic make his original mistake? There is no easy answer. Rakic is an excellent scientist, one of the finest neuroscientists of his generation. But seeing radioactive new neurons is extremely difficult. These cells are easy to ignore, especially if they shouldn't be there. One has to be looking for them in order to see them. Furthermore, almost all lab primates live in an environment that suppresses neurogenesis. A drab-looking cage creates a drab-looking brain. Unless the primates are transferred to an enriched enclosure, their adult brains will produce few new neurons. The realization that typical laboratory conditions are debilitating for animals and produce false data has been one of the accidental discoveries of the neurogenesis field.
I think talking about neuroscience through the lens of art is quite a clever way to get reluctant readers like me to learn about this stuff. I'm fascinated by science, but if I saw a book on new developments in neuroscience I'd probably be too intimidated to think I could follow it - and I am relatively well-educated about science compared to most non-scientists. But I know something about Proust and Cezanne and Gertrude Stein, so that gives Lehrer a framework within which to discuss how their artistic insights are similar to what scientists have discovered about the brain.
posted by joannemerriam at 7:10 AM on November 10, 2007


Proust was a neuroscientist.
We are all neuroscientists (by this definition). We all have theories of the way humans work. The job of the artist is, in part, to be a keen observer of the human condition.

Neuroscientists (and psychologists) are also keen observers. But they go one step farther. They test their theories. And sometimes (many times) their original hypotheses are wrong.

Artists have made many guesses about human nature over the years. But they never tested any of them. Therefore, they are not scientists.

I'll say that again. Artists are not scientists. There is a fundamental difference in how each one treats truth. In art, what's considered true is what feels right, what rings true. Scientists are only concerned with the way things actually are, whether it sounds poetic or awkward. Is there a considerable overlap? Yes of course. But our intuitions for what is pretty and fitting are not necessarily going to map onto the real world.
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 7:42 AM on November 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'm curious, Arthur, have you actually read the book, or are you getting yourself all worked up over disputing the title?

Your insistence that artists and writers never test their theories doesn't ring true. They just don't test them in laboratories, using quantifiable standard measurements. Squabbling over whether or not art is as worthy or as good or as strictly true as science seems to me to be about as interesting an argument as to which is more essential to human life: love or corn?
posted by digaman at 7:54 AM on November 10, 2007 [1 favorite]




It doesn't really matter, digaman. No matter how well intentioned Lehrer is, and no matter how compelling his nuanced argument is in the book, the general and casual argument that artists are scientists is risible. Arthur is quite right that the two have essentially incompatible notions of “truth”.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:39 PM on November 10, 2007


Far be it from me to suggest that you actually read the text that you claim to be talking about while heatedly defending the notion that the precise observations of science are demeaned by comparing them to the precise observations of art, even via metaphor.
posted by digaman at 3:17 PM on November 10, 2007


Thanks for this. I purchased his book today. Bad science writing is often ranted about in this household, so here's to some potential relief!
posted by birdie birdington at 4:08 PM on November 10, 2007


“Far be it from me to suggest that you actually read the text that you claim to be talking about while heatedly defending the notion that the precise observations of science are demeaned by comparing them to the precise observations of art, even via metaphor.”

Well, yes, you shouldn't suggest that as a defense against that notion. The title Proust was a Neuroscientist quite explicitly makes the argument that artists can be scientists merely by virtue of their art. That's a risible assertion. We don't need the book itself to debate whether the book's title is objectionable. And the book's title is not the only thing here making that equation.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:09 PM on November 10, 2007


which is more essential to human life: love or corn?

It's corn, isn't it?
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:23 PM on November 10, 2007


What complete failure of imagination does it take to read the title literally?

I mean, c'mon.
posted by birdie birdington at 4:25 PM on November 10, 2007


Ethereal, you'll be relieved to discover that in fact, Lehrer does not make the stupid assertion you're arguing against, other than metaphorically, in the title. He argues that the art of certain very astute creative people anticipated the later discoveries of science. He does not conflate the two. As I pointed out, Lehrer worked in Eric Kandel's lab -- he's not naive about the differences between science and art. So you can save the word "risible" for a truly risible occasion.
posted by digaman at 5:38 PM on November 10, 2007


Before I go defending Lehrer, I'd like to bring attention to the first bit of LooseFilter's Radio Lab link. Particularly the part where they play the original sentence a second time, all the way up to sometimes behave so strangely is totally hilarious.

The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behaveso strangely...
posted by Anything at 6:10 PM on November 10, 2007


Now, I don't know Lehrer beyond the links provided in the post and this thread, but he appears to have a view I can share.

Scientific knowledge, with its strict criteria of documentation and repeatability, is limited by requiring presently available and often expensive methods that satisfy these criteria.

Non-scientific knowledge from various sources, ranging from cultural traditions to introspection, is more readily available, but it has the great disadvantage of being less probably accurate. Nevertheless, 1) many non-scientific sources produce propositions that have a far better than random chance of being close to truth, and 2) if a proposition that stems from outside science is true, it is true whether or not there currently exists scientific evidence for it. If a piece of non-scientific knowledge 'rings true', there's a chance that it rings true because it is true, and in areas where science has not yet reached, this is a whole lot more valuable than nothing. If nothing is what scientists start building hypotheses on, once new methods become available, well, that's a waste.
posted by Anything at 11:15 PM on November 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Regarding obvious science: Obvious science is, obviously, obvious, but, to my knowledge, groundbreaking revelation is not its purpose. Some facts may be commonly known, but still such that some people's knowledge of them is fairly limited. Such facts have to be documented in a standard format, so they can be referred to. In science, there's little room for "if you have to ask...". Also, obvious science has the added bonus of being a sort of sanity check for common knowledge, which is, occasionally, false.

(I seem to have caught comma fever.)
posted by Anything at 1:11 AM on November 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


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