Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ruminations on the past week

This past week was busy and bit out of the ordinary. It included time with friends, some loss, some insight, some growth, and some setbacks.

About once a month I and a small group of friends get together for dinner at a local restaurant. The size of the group varies from month to month; it can vary from as few as two to as many as six. It's a mixed bunch with ages ranging between 45 to 92. Some are straight and some are gay. Some are theist and some are non-theist. We usually talk about current events or where someone went on their last trip. This week there were just four of us. I bought some domain names this week. I registered "" and "". I've got them configured to redirect to this blog. Unfortunately, "" was already taken - it's being used by one of those fake search pages. I may be able to pick it up latter. I attended the memorial service for Floyd Tanaka. Floyd was a successful and highly respected Architect and urban planner. He had a very interesting and productive life. Floyd was a Japanese American. His parents immigrated to the United States in the early 19 hundreds. He and his parents and the rest of their family (except for his older brother) were all interned in one of the Japanese internment camps during WWII. His older brother served in the infantry during the war. Floyd went on to become an architect, urban planner, ran a successful business and raised a family. Floyd was a long time Unitarian and that's how I got to know him. Floyd died just short of his 84th birthday. I've had some difficulty staying focused and getting things done at work. There are days that I know I was really busy but don't really know what I did or where my time went. This week I started keeping a log of my activities. I bought a small day to day calendar to record my activities in but it was too small. So, I started using Google Docs to record my activities and keep a "To Do" list. So far it seems to be working fairly well. By using Google Docs, I can access my time log and To Do list at any time from anywhere. For security reasons I am careful not enter anything confidential, personally identifiable, or proprietary. Staying focused and keeping track of time isn't the only bad habit I've got. Another bad habit resurfaced again this week. A project I've been working on for the past two years has gotten stalled. We are planning to implement the next phase of the project in mid-March, but on Tuesday I learned that a key person isn't going to be available at that time. My old bad habit kicked in and I immediately jumped to conclusions and assumed that person was intentionally trying to sabotage the project - which of course, wasn't true. I had attributed motive and assumed sabotage without ever talking to the individual. This is really a bad habit that I have got to break. My behavior wasn't simply bad, it was unjust, cruel and uncivilized. That's not the kind of person I want to be. I don't recognize Valentines Day, but at the office they held a dessert tasting party for Valentines Day. Everyone brought in some kind of dessert dish for the party. We went around and sampled each of the desserts and voted for the one we liked the most. The one with the most votes received a gift card.

I'm sure getting tired of the weather. It will be warm and dry one day only to be cold and snowy the next day. It got up to 67F yesterday but it is cold with snow flurries again today. It's been like that all week.

Well, that's been my week. I hope to have something more profound, possibly even entertaining, to report next time.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Proust Was a Neuroscientist (updated 4/17/08)

Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer is the most fascinating book I've read in a long time.

Jonah Lehrer is a Rhodes scholar, a graduate of Columbia University, has worked in the fields of Neuroscience, genetics, the culinary arts, and has written for Nature Magazine, NOVA and MIT Technology Review. Proust Was a Neuroscientist is his first book.

The book tells the stories of eight artists (poets, authors, painters, chefs and musicians) who discovered basic truths about the human mind and who foretold of discoveries now being confirmed by science.

Lehrer discusses how science can analyze, quantify and describe our world but it can not express how we experience our world. Art (literature, painting and music) are ways of expressing our experience of our world. Science and art complement each other. We need both art and science to fully understand ourselves and our world.

In the books prelude Lehrer writes "By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness." Lehrer is both pro science and pro art. This is not an adversarial book.

While telling the stories of these artists, Lehrer sketches the historical background and establishes the context of their work. As he describes and discusses the work of each artist he also describes and discusses the findings of contemporary Neuroscience research. I'm not sure if it was intentional or coincidental that he also revisits some perennial philosophical problems such as: the mind body problem, free will, and consciousness and self.

In chapter one, "Walt Whitman The Substance of Feeling" Lehrer tells the story of Walt Whitman, his relationship to Emerson and his influence on William James. He tells of Whitman's rejection of Descartes duality, his skepticism of phrenology, and his work as a field nurse during the American civil war.

Whitman's expierance with the "ghost limb" during the civil war adds to his interest in his own body and mind and leads him to reflect in his poetry his conclusion that our body, soal and mind are all one. The soul is made of flesh. Our body is our mind.

Lehrer uses Whitman's life and poetry to introduce discoveries in Neuroscience and the work of Antonio Damasio who has done extensive work on the etiology of feelings. He describes a body-brain-body-brain feedback loop which gives rise to our emotions. His research has also found that that feelings generated by the body are an integral component of rational thought.

The chapter "George Eliot The Biology of Freedom" uses the works of Eliot, the Human Genome Project and evolutionary biology to present a convincing refutation of determinism and reductionism. Lehrer writes "As Eliot anticipated, our freedom is built into us. At its most fundamental level, life is full of leeway, defined by a plasticity that defies every determinism."

Other chapters describe how our brain interprets taste, vision and sound. The chapter about Marcel Proust is a terrific description of how our memory works and the transitive imprecise nature of memory.

Lehrer concludes by advocating a "Fourth Culture" where the Humanities and Sciences abandon their animosities and engage in cooperative, civil and productive dialog. Both the sciences and the humanities are necessary to further our understanding of what it is to be human.

I really enjoyed this book. I learned about some people I never knew about and learned much more about the works of some people I did know about. Some of the science I was familiar with but I was not aware of all of it. This was an enjoyable, enlightening and life affirming read.

The book is 242 pages long and includes a table of contents, prelude, eight chapters, a coda, acknowledgments, end notes, bibliography and index. It is available in most well stocked bookstores or can be ordered on-line. It is also available as an unabridged audio download from Audable.Com.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist
by Jonah Lehrer
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston 2007
ISBN: 978-0-618-62010-4

Check it out. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

See also:
Jonah Lehrer on C-SPAN2
The Frontal Cortex
All In The Mind

PS. I have a major crush on Jonah!