Why art and science need each other

If you are a scientist you could choose to get nitpicky about whether or not Proust was a neuroscientist, or you could sit back, relax and enjoy the ride as Lehrer weaves together stories about art, science and creative breakthroughs. Jonah Lehrer  argues in his book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist that when it comes to discoveries of the mind and brain, art got there first.

To prove his point he describes the ground-breaking work of writers, painters and composers from the 19th and early 20th centuries (including writers and poets) and shows how each one discovered an essential truth about the mind that neuroscience is only now rediscovering. He says Proust was the first to reveal the fallibility of memory, Cézanne worked out the subtleties of vision; and Gertrude Stein mined the deep structure of language 50 years before Chomsky.

Critics question whether the artists and writers were really prescient when it comes to neuroscience but from my perspective it doesn’t really matter, Lehrer provides a fascinating account of how the creative expression of each artist was influenced by the scientific theories of their times.

Lehrer’s intention in writing the book is to re-imagine a new relationship between two polarities so that “science is seen through the optic of art, and art is interpreted in the light of science.” He asserts that science is not the only path to knowledge and measurement is not the same as understanding.

Lehrer would like to see art and science re-integrated into an expansive critical sphere. “Both art and science can be useful, and both can be true. In our own time art is a necessary counterbalance to the glories and excesses of scientific reductionism, especially if they are applied to human experience.

We now know enough to know that we will never know everything. This is why we need art: it teaches us how to live with mystery. Only the artist can explore the ineffable without offering us an answer, for sometimes there is no answer. John Keats called this romantic impulse ‘negative capability.’ He said that certain poets, like Shakespeare, had ‘the ability to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Keats realized that just because something can’t be solved, or reduced into the laws of physics, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art.

But before we can get a fourth culture, our two existing cultures must modify their habits. First of all, the humanities must sincerely engage with the sciences. Henry James defined the writer as someone on whom nothing is lost; artists must heed his call and not ignore science’s inspiring descriptions of reality. Every humanist should read Nature.

At the same time, the sciences must recognize that their truths are not the only truths. No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge. That simple idea will be the starting premise of any fourth culture. As Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science, wrote, ‘It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism.

Indeed. When I look at contemporary art, it is almost always influenced by science and technology, and when I listen to scientists explain their work to the public, they often use literary metaphors and artistic images to convey meaning.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist is available at Amazon

A Writer Looks at Obsession, Creativity and Neuroscience

The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady

By Sue Woolfe

I had the pleasure of meeting Sue Woolfe at the ACA conference in Singapore last Winter, and being introduced to her work. She is best known for her critically acclaimed novels Painted Woman and Leaning Towards Infinity. When she was writing her third book, The Secret Cure, she suffered from a bad case of writer’s block.

She says “I became stranded in the writing of a novel and cast around for help so wildly that I took to wondering whether neuroscience could rescue me. Not a rescue of the mind, I knew that wasn’t what was needed. In the midst of all the imperatives of the outside world; wars, revolutions all those small and large acts of betrayal I needed to understand what we, the people like me who sit in rooms making up stories, are doing with our minds.

“When I was introduced to the scientists and told what they were doing, sure enough I could barely understand them. Then one of the cleaning ladies caught my eye. She was the sort of person commonly described as larger than life though her stature was endearingly small and she seemed to bustle with a secret energy – although perhaps that’s just hindsight speaking. I thought at least I might be able to understand her, I asked her to give me details about her job…She paused in our talk, looked over my shoulder at the large clock on the wall and excused herself, so-and-so would have finished his experiment by now and I’ve got to clean his plates. I called after her, asking how she knew, but she had already disappeared. It seemed that I had asked too many questions and a laboratory manager, mistaking me for an investigative journalist, ordered me off the premises.”

The scientists took Sue to the canteen for tea and while they were chatting she blurted out, “What if that cleaning lady is secretly running the lab?” The scientists laughed but she was utterly serious. “The image of a cleaning lady wielding such power was overwhelming, I could think of nothing else, not for a long, long time.”

Woolfe’s image of the cleaning lady formed the basis for her novel The Secret Cure. In The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady, she documents her creative struggles in writing the novel, and explores the relationship between mind and body through her interest in theories about creativity from the field of neuroscience.