Brain and Art pp 139-152 | Cite as

Literature and Neurosciences: The temps perdu, Between Hermann von Helmholtz and Marcel Proust

  • Marco Piccolino


This chapter explores the possibility that the phrase “temps perdu,” present in the title of the masterpiece of Marcel Proust, may have a scientific origin. Exactly the same expression was indeed used in 1851, more than 50 years before Proust, by Hermann von Helmholtz, to indicate the latency of the physiological responses in his nerve-muscle experiments, and, in particular, to designate the time of nervous conduction that he had first succeeded in measuring in 1850. A possible link between Helmholtz and Proust might be Etienne-Jules Marey, the French scientist particularly known for his physiological studies on heart and circulation and for his development of modern methods of graphic and photographic records of physiological events. But the story might have an antecedent, connected to strange errors in astronomical observations, which might, in turn, be related to sensory perception, and particularly to visuoauditory coordination.


History of science Nerve physiology Etienne-Jules Marey Personal equation 



This is largely based on two my previous texts on the same themes, an article in English, appeared in 2003 on Audiological Medicine [37], and a more ample writing, published as a chapter of my book in Italian printed in 2005 and entitled Lo Zufolo e la Cicala, Divagazioni galileiane tra la scienza e la sua storia [3]. Many thanks to Alessandro Martini, editor of Audiological Medicine for viewing in a favorable way this new version of my former English essay. My texts on Helmholtz and Proust were inspired by a stimulating essay of Thomas Schestag [31]. In order to make this chapter more readable, I have not indicated in the present chapter most of the bibliography on Proust that I have consulted. Besides the correspondence (mainly in the edition of Kolb, [38]), classic biographies (as, for instance, that of Painter [39], and of Tadié [40]), and specific essays, I have profited mainly of the works of Mariolina Bongiovanni Bertini, Anna Maria Contini, Anne Henry and Giovanni Macchia (some of which are listed among the references: see [41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47]). In order not to make the reference list excessively long, I have also decided not to include the textbooks of physiology that I have searched for the occurrence of temps perdu. I wish to thank the many colleagues and friends that have read previous versions of this manuscript and have encouraged this work, somewhat outside my specific field of interest. Among them Livia Iannucci, Giacomo Magrini, Alessandro Martini, Dafydd Stephens, Paolo Mazzarello, Germana Pareti, and particularly, Dora and Hersch Gerschenfeld.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marco Piccolino
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre of NeurosciencesUniversity of FerraraFerraraItaly

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