Jonah Lehrer of The Frontal Cortex spoke at the Clinton School last night, and it was great. I just reviewed Lehrer’s first book Proust was a Neuroscientist and was excited to hear him speak on the purposefully outrageous title “Kanye West Was a Neuroscientist.” I also had the privilege of introducing him. I had written out the introduction, but then cut it down quite a bit, so here’s the longer version I didn’t actually get to give:
I am a student of science. Science appeals to my practical side; it took us to the Moon and back, it let us map the human genome, and science helped us eradicate smallpox, all within my parents’ life spans. Science appeals to me because the reductionist technique is an incredible tool for fighting disease and gaining knowledge about the world we inhabit.
I started my day this morning with a lab for Advanced Genetics, where we’re studying Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant species so important that only genetics students have ever heard of it. This semester we undergrads have been using the elegant techniques of science to create new, if extremely specialized, knowledge about the world. The techniques of science and the philosophy of reductionism are so powerful that it’s tempting to apply them to every field of knowledge. But we need balance.
After my genetics lab I go to the daily Chorus rehearsal. Walking into the music building for Chorus is like crossing an invisible but impenetrable barrier between entire realms of knowledge and ways of knowing. Few of my friends in the science building are active in the arts, so I have a hard time explaining the irreducible experience of singing Brahms’ German Requiem with a group of talented musicians. And hardly anyone in Chorus would stay awake if I started talking about the routine glory I see in the polymerase chain reaction.
Jonah Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist is an exuberant demonstration that these barriers between science and art can and should be broken down. By taking test cases of artists, authors, musicians, and cooks who anticipated the discoveries of today’s neuroscience, Lehrer makes a strong case for the importance of the arts. And when Lehrer writes about the limitations of science, it is all the more convincing because he also writes knowledgeably about its groundbreaking successes.
Lehrer studied neuroscience at Columbia University, where he worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Lehrer was a writer for the Columbia Spectator, a Gospel music DJ for Columbia’s radio station, and Editor-in-Chief of The Columbia Review, the university poetry magazine. He also worked as a line cook at Le Cirque 2000 and Le Bernardin.
Lehrer then studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he did much of the research that would become his first book. Today he is Editor at Large for Seed, a magazine about science and culture. He has written for the Boston Globe, Nature, and NPR, and writes a blog about neuroscience called the Frontal Cortex. Join me in welcoming Jonah Lehrer.
Lehrer’s talk was largely based on content from his book. He talked about Escoffier and Stravinsky, and how our love of music is rooted in our ability to recognize patterns. Great artists make good music by setting up a pattern and intentionally withholding it from us. Because we want the pattern again and don’t quite get what we want, our ears and our brain stay fascinated. This, Lehrer argued, is a key similarity between Beethoven and Kanye West. It’s almost like Stravinsky and Kanye West are evolutionarily conserved hox developmental genes in fruit flies and mammals (I’ll let you pick which is which) that have been recently discovered to be homologous. From the outside they look completely different, but what makes them tick is basically the same.
Lehrer’s speech also reminded me of the new John Mayer song I heard for the first time last week. “Say” is pretty simple–it’s the high guitar (or ukulele?) hook at the beginning that first caught my ear. But listen to the chorus too; it’s one six-word phrase repeated over and over:
This simple pattern is very catchy–it sticks in your head. I heard it once on the radio, and then once on the PA system before Bill Clinton spoke (random mix of music I’m sure) and then I had it stuck in my head the whole drive back from New Orleans. I literally flipped through stations hoping to hear the song. I thought about stopping to buy it, but never passed any music stores. At that point I didn’t know who it was or the name of the song, but I was hooked.
So I got home, found out what the song was, and bought in on iTunes. I must say, I’m already kind of tired of it. The Chorus is just too repetitive. While Mayer has some excellent other music, his singles tend to be of lower quality. The difference between a good song and an ok song, or between mere pop music and real music seems to be in these patterns. “Say” is simply too predictable. You know exactly what Mayer will say before he says it, because it’s the same thing over and over again. Really great music flirts with that repetition but never quite gives you satisfaction. And that’s why Brahms takes more effort to listen to, but will likely stand the test of time longer than John Mayer. Or at least his radio singles.