Sunday, November 22, 2009

More Psychologists Wearing Proust Goggles

It’s a tradition in some scientific journals to publish a commentary piece that highlights a newsworthy article in the current issue. One journal that does this is the weekly Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. The November 10 issue contained a paper by a team of Swiss neuroscientists about emotional memory and genetic variation in the α2b-adrenergic receptor. People with a particular variant form of this neurotransmitter receptor have enhanced emotional memory. The Swiss paper uses fMRI imaging to show that such people also have increased activity in the amygdala—an emotional processing area of the brain—when viewing pictures with negative emotional content.

A cool result: it could have bearing on individual susceptibility to flashbacks of emotional memory or to PTSD.

PNAS invited two psychologists from a University of Toronto research center to put the new results in context. Rebecca Todd and Adam Anderson wrote a commentary called “The neurogenetics of remembering emotions past.”

The Proustian allusion in the title caught my eye. No sooner had I downloaded the paper than the alarm on the First Nerve Bogosity Meter began screaming like an angry fishmonger in Marseille.

Here’s how the paper opens:
Even if you have not waded through all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, you are probably familiar with its most famous scene where the narrator bites into a little cake called a madeleine, dipped in tea, and experiences a wash of vivid emotional memories. This literary moment has captured popular imagination (madeleines are now sold by Starbucks) because it so effectively captures the powerful and involuntary nature of emotional memory.
Oh, boy. Where to begin? Drs. Todd and Anderson completely misrepresent the madeleine scene. Proust’s narrator did not experience “a wash of vivid emotional memories” when slurping his tea-soaked Twinkie; he experienced a vague, nonspecific sense of familiarity, tried repeatedly to re-evoke it, and strained to recall the original memory. What Todd and Anderson call a “literary moment” drags on for page after page.

All of us are familiar with the sudden transports of emotional memory, especially when touched off by a stray smell. Other writers before and after Proust have captured this phenomenon more succinctly and poetically (see here and What the Nose Knows for examples). Proust’s madeleine episode is emphatically not a description of these vivid and effortlessly recalled flashes of memory. Their use of the oxymoronic phrase “Proustian vividness” suggests that that Todd and Anderson have not waded through even the first fifty pages of Swann’s Way.

This could all be forgiven if it were only an embarrassingly sophomoric attempt at literary garnish for a highly technical paper. Unfortunately, having donned their patented Proust Goggles, Todd and Anderson step deeper into the doodoo. They cite Proust as if he were presenting a biomedical hypothesis; by the end of the paper this is how they’re talking about him:
Proust conjectured that emotional memories are more akin to a bodily reflex than to the higher-level meaning-making systems that drive voluntary memory. The finding that genetic polymorphisms in adrenoceptors related to regulating blood pressure are further associated with individual differences in amygdala activation and emotion-enhanced memory is consistent with Proust’s view.
For Pete’s sake! It’s one thing to garble your literary allusions. It’s another to adopt a nearly unreadable proto-modern novelist as your scientific idol. I just don’t get it. What drives psychologists to prostrate themselves at the altar of Professor Proust?

In the psychology of smell memory, the Proust Boosters have come and gone. Despite scads of scientific papers with titles like “Proust nose best”, we now know that odor memory operates like all other forms of memory: it decays with time and can be altered by subsequent experience. Let’s hope that researchers working on adrenergic receptors and brain processing of emotion don’t make us suffer through more cutesy titles and mangled lit-crit.

Enleverez les lunettes de Proust!

[More Proust Goggles here.]


Nathan Branch said...

I do love it when your First Nerve Bogosity Meter starts a clangin' -- but yes, I agree, I think the insistence on using Proust as a basis for anything emotional-memory related is way of stealing a ticket to that very rare club: People who've actually read Proust.

"Look everyone, I have a ticket! And I didn't even have to work for it!"

It's like James Joyce's Ulysses -- "One of the most important works of modernist literature" that people never read.

olfacta said...

Could be the Lazy Writers' Way of opening the door to lead a reader into the alphabet stew sure to follow?

At one time, reading Proust meant you were cultivated, literate and, oh yeah, fashionable. I remember reading an interview with Diana Vreeland in which she claimed that she read Proust every night. But that was before Ambien.

Avery Gilbert said...

Nathan Branch:

Referring to a literary touchstone you haven't read isn't such a big deal; we can make a point using Capt. Ahab and the White Whale without having read every page of Moby Dick. (See? I just did!) If you get caught misusing the source it's really just a misdemeanor. But to go all in and treat Marcel Proust as if he wrote a review in Current Opinion in Neurobiologyinstead of a novel, and to mischaracterize the work while doing so, is a little gross.

And why do it? PNAS just handed these guys a plum opportunity to show off their science chops--and they use it in a farcical attempt to go literary on us. If these guys eventually win a Nobel Prize they'll probably accept the award with toilet paper sticking to the bottom of their shoes.

Avery Gilbert said...


Ambien. Heh.

Swann's Way also makes a great coaster for your bedside table.

Nathan Branch said...

Speaking of coasters, "Infinite Jest" anyone? ;)

TheCellularScale said...

It looks like someone actually tried to test 'Proust's conjecture':

I have been reading your blog and share your dislike of Proust mis-representation in science. When I saw this paper, I immediately wondered what First Nerve would have to say about it.

Avery Gilbert said...


Thanks for the tip. I'll check it out.