Neuroscience, Rap Music, and Beethoven
Jonah Lehrer discusses the relationship between art and science. By Virginia Van de Wall ’12
Marshmallows and music are not commonly associated with lab work and the study of neurons. Jonah Lehrer proved otherwise on April 6, when he visited the College as the distinguished speaker for the C.P. Snow Lecture Series.
Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired magazine as well as the author of two books, How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. His lecture, “The Future of Science Is Art, or What We Can Learn about the Brain from a French Chef, Kanye West, and Marshmallows,” focused on metacognition, or thinking about thinking.
On the agenda was the brain’s perception of music. In order for a song to be interesting, there has to be an element of uncertainty. To demonstrate this, Lehrer played snippets of songs from both Kanye West, an American rapper, and Ludwig van Beethoven, a 18th-century German composer. Though both artists differ in genre, Lehrer argues that the change of rhythms and patterns throughout their works makes them both similar and engaging. “Beauty in music is this fine line between giving us a pattern and then violating it,” Lehrer says, “which means giving the brain something to hold on to, something it wants to search for, but then making it search.”
Janet Hunting, assistant professor of chemistry and chairperson of the lecture series’ committee, found Lehrer’s explanations to be very thorough. “What he does is think about how we think about science,” Hunting says. “He relates people who are nonscientists to science by taking what [scientists] think about and applying it to the real world.”
Lehrer also spent time discussing the Marshmallow Task, an experiment conducted in the 1960s by Walter Mischel, a psychology professor at Stanford University at the time who is now at Columbia. Mischel gave four-year-old children a marshmallow and promised them if they waited 15 minutes without eating the one in front of them he would give them a second. This test proved to have a direct correlation with the subject’s success later in life. Those who could postpone eating the marshmallow exhibited a better attention span and had higher IQ scores.
Tucker Ives ’11 said this was the first science lecture he had ever attended. “It was all new information to me,” he says. “I thought he did a really good job of explaining it so that those of us ill-versed in science could understand.”
Lehrer said that while neuroscience and reductionism are commonly thought of as the only ways to understand how humans function, examining human nature is just as important.
“The one reality neuroscience can’t describe is the only reality we’ll ever know — this subjective feeling of reality that is very hard to describe as nothing but neurons doing their thing,” Lehrer says. “This is why we need art. I think art will always be our most accurate model of what it feels like to be a human being, to be conscious.”