Proust and the hypnotoad
August 27, 2010 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Has there been any research done on whether reading Proust changes your cognitive processes?

I've been re-reading Proust lately and after a few hours of concentrated parsing of his sentences I star to notice that I acquire a heightened sense of perception. Is it just me or is this a universal thing? After reading him I find that words come easier into my head, objects and minute details become magnified, and words in conversations become sharper and clearer (almost like diagramed sentences). I assume that this happens because of the contrast from a hiper-focused concentrated state to a regular kind of mundane existence, but is there any research to back it up?
posted by Omon Ra to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
posted by matkline at 11:14 AM on August 27, 2010

I don't know about empirical research, but you might be interested in this book:

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain De Botton

He touches on Proust's use of language, and its sensuality, as well as describing Proust's personality and motivations.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 11:15 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reading Proust changed my cognitive process -- it takes a lot of concentration and focus to keep track of his sentences, all the characters, the unreliable narrator, etc. I ma not sure if it was Proust as such or if any complex, dense text would do the trick, but Proust is more fun than a lot of complex texts, so....
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:34 AM on August 27, 2010

matkline, I was under the impression that Proust Was a Neuroscientist deals with how Proust (and other artists) anticipated certain ways in which neuroscientists view the brain, not specifically with how/if our perception changes from reading In Search of Lost Time.
posted by Omon Ra at 11:42 AM on August 27, 2010

matkline's link to Proust was a Neuroscientist is misleading. The point of Lehrer's book is that Proust wrote about cognitive processes in a way that anticipated later neuroscience, not that reading Proust changes you cognitively. The latter point is not addressed in Lehrer's book.

I don't know of any research to support the idea that reading Proust changes the way people think. There is evidence that sustained concentration, and/or different types of concentration, like meditation, can change one's neural pathways.

How specifically does it have to be Proust?

(Anecdotally, I've read through In Search... twice, and there was certainly a halo effect from the reading, although I don't consider that it was particularly sustained, or specific to Proust. I recently had similar experiences reading The Recognitions.)
posted by OmieWise at 11:45 AM on August 27, 2010

On're correct about Lehrer's book, matkline is incorrect.
posted by OmieWise at 11:45 AM on August 27, 2010

Ben Marcus wrote an essay five years ago makes the argument that difficult fiction stimulates an area of the brain called Wernicke's area and that was why reading something that required an effort to keep up with was pleasurable. It's been five years since I've read it and I'm pretty sure that he drew on neuroscience to make his case. That said, Marcus is a novelist, not a neuroscientist. The article is not online, but there's a page or so available on Harper's Magazine website. I don't think he deals with Proust, but it's one place to start.
posted by Kattullus at 11:59 AM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Maybe? In th semi-satirical "how to talk about books you haven't read" by Pierre bayard, Proust's works are cited frequently as existing more in conversation than in anything else (demonstrated by the first answer to this question). Just an amusing aside on Proust (whom ive never read).
posted by mnemonic at 12:20 PM on August 27, 2010

How specifically does it have to be Proust?

I thought that since its a pretty famous book that there might be an article on the sensorial effect of reading it out there. I was talking to my father about how clear my brain felt after each sitting, and he (and I) wondered if it was a regular thing people experienced and if it was documented somewhere.
posted by Omon Ra at 12:40 PM on August 27, 2010

Again not quite what you're looking for but this bit from an interview with neuroscientist Stanislas Dehane might be of interest to you:
COOK: In the book, you describe a part of the brain as the “letterbox.” Can you please explain what you mean by that?

DEHAENE: This is the name I have given to a brain region that systematically responds whenever we read words. It is in the left hemisphere, on the inferior face, and belongs to the visual region that helps us recognize our environment. This particular region specializes in written characters and words. What is fascinating is that it is at the same location in all of us – whether we read Chinese, Hebrew or English, whether we've learned with whole-language or phonics methods, a single brain region seems to take on the function of recognizing the visual word.

COOK: But reading is a relatively recent invention, so what was the “letterbox” doing before we had written language?

DEHAENE: An excellent question – we don't really know. The whole region in which this area is inserted is involved in invariant visual recognition – it helps us recognize objects, faces and scenes, regardless of the particular viewpoint, lighting, and other superficial variations.

We are starting to do brain-imaging experiments in illiterates, and we find that this region, before it responds to words, has a preference for pictures of objects and faces. We are also finding that this region is especially attuned to small features present in the contours of natural shapes, such as the “Y” shape in the branches of trees. My hypothesis is our letters emerged from a recycling of those shapes at the cultural level. The brain didn't have enough time to evolve “for” reading – so writing systems evolved “for” the brain!
posted by Kattullus at 12:50 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wernicke's area is stimulated by all language-- so I don't see why it has any relevance to Proust in particular. Anyone who claims that it does without data is just talking nonsense (which may or may not stimulate that area just as well!).
posted by Maias at 1:28 PM on August 27, 2010

That Ben Marcus essay is pretty good, although it's a polemic, with all the issues that entails. I haven't read it since it came out, but I'm almost certain he does not discuss Proust at all. His version of "difficult" tends to be different.
posted by OmieWise at 1:42 PM on August 27, 2010

Julia Kristeva has written a couple of books on Proust that pretty much answer your question, though in a very arcane and psychoanalytic way. her reading has to do with what happens to memory and time in Proust's writing -- how the distinction between the past and present blurs and what reading that does to the way that we think.

it would probably be best to start with Proust and the Sense of Time, and then go on to Time and Sense, which I'm in the middle of now. both are book length treatments -- if you want something shorter then the chapter on timelessness from Intimate Revolt is a good overview.
posted by spindle at 3:01 PM on August 27, 2010

I just got home and whoops, it appears I don't remember Intimate Revolt as well as I thought I did.

it introduces timelessness through Freud in the chapter on the timeless, or zeitlos in German, which Kristeva suggests could also be translated as "lost time". it's in the following chapter, on intimacy, that she then works it through Proust explicitly by way of Plato's cave and Proust's description of deep sleep from vol. 2. there's something of what she does in the two books on Proust in Intimate Revolt, but it's tangled up in what she's doing with psychoanalytic theory and it's not as easy to draw it out as I thought it would be. so to revise my earlier advice: Proust and the Sense of Time is probably your best place to start, long or short, when it comes to Kristeva.
posted by spindle at 5:21 PM on August 27, 2010

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