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Santiago Ramon y Cajal: Recollections of My Life

Over the last few weeks I have been read­ing Rec­ol­lec­tions of My Life, the impres­sive Recollections of My Lifeauto­bi­og­ra­phy by San­ti­ago Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934), one the founders of mod­ern neu­ro­science. The book com­bines a very lively win­dow into his child­hood, life and per­sonal reflec­tions, with a pretty tech­ni­cal descrip­tions at times of his main con­tri­bu­tions to neuroscience.

I wanted to under­stand his views bet­ter because, on the one hand, he is often pre­sented as one of the first pro­po­nents of the No New Neu­rons (in the adult brain) dogma now refuted,  but on the other hand he said things like “Every man can, of he so desires, become the sculp­tor of his own brain”, thereby empha­siz­ing what we now call adult neu­ro­plas­tic­ity (the abil­ity of the brain to rewire itself through experience).

Let me share some of the quotes I have enjoyed the most:

(on his traits of char­ac­ter): “a pro­found belief in the sov­er­eign will; faith in work; the con­vic­tion that a per­se­ver­ing and delib­er­ate effort is capa­ble of mould­ing and orga­niz­ing every­thing, from the mus­cle to the brain, mak­ing up the defi­cien­cies of nature and even over­com­ing the mis­chances of character-the most dif­fi­cult thing in life.”

Com­ment:  very clear belief in neuroplasticity-which he couldn’t prove in his life­time given lack of the tech­ni­cal resources and accu­mu­lated knowl­edge avail­able today.

…I am a fer­vent adept of the reli­gion of facts. It has been said innu­mer­able times, and I have also repeated it, that “facts remain and the­o­ries pass away…To observe with­out think­ing is as dan­ger­ous as to think with­out observ­ing. The­ory is our best intel­lec­tual tool; a tool, like all oth­ers, liable to be notched and to rust, requir­ing con­tin­ual repairs and replace­ments, but with­out which it would be almost impos­si­ble to make a deep hol­low in the mar­ble block of reality”

Com­ment: a  beau­ti­ful dis­play of the sci­en­tific mindset.

(after a first dis­il­lu­sion­ment) “I con­soled myself then in the way that I have always been in the habit of doing…namely by bathing my soul in nature…For one who is capa­ble of appre­ci­at­ing its enchant­ment, the coun­try is the sov­er­eign soother of emo­tions, the unre­place­able com­mu­ta­tor of thoughts.”

Com­ment: I was sur­prised by the lyri­cal nature of sev­eral pas­sages in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, like this one. When Howard Gart­ner talks of a “nat­u­ral­is­tic intel­li­gence”, he may well be think­ing of atti­tudes like Cajal’s. Which makes much sense, given the quote above on the value of “facts”.

Before the foam­ing tor­rent of new impres­sions, the youth has to bring into action regions of his brain which hith­erto lay fal­low. A sig­nif­i­cant indi­ca­tion of the great men­tal cri­sis, of this func­tional strug­gle between old and new ideas Purkinje cells Ramon y Cajalwhich is stirred up in the mind, is the bewil­der­ment which seizes up dur­ing the first days of explor­ing a city. In the end, order is estab­lished. The plas­tic adap­ta­tion once com­pleted, the cere­bral orga­ni­za­tion is enriched and refined; one knows more and one’s judge­ment is improved accordingly.”

Com­ment:  want to encour­age neu­ro­plas­tic­ity? go and live in a new coun­try for a while.

(on his role encour­ag­ing the work of younger peers) “I always tried to put as lit­tle pres­sure as pos­si­ble on the minds of my pupils. Every opin­ion which was the out­come of an hon­est men­tal effort, espe­cially if it has risen from recently dis­cov­ered facts, has inspired me with sym­pa­thy and respect, even though it might con­tra­dict fondly cher­ished per­sonal con­cep­tions. How was I to fall into the temp­ta­tion to impose my own the­o­ries when I have given out­stand­ing exam­ples of aban­don­ing them as a result of the small­est objec­tive evi­dence against them? Far be from me that self-idolizing desire, the fore­run­ner of irre­me­di­a­ble senility”.

Com­ment:  want to pre­vent any kind of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity? “self-idolizing desire” may help.

(sum­ma­riz­ing the main con­clu­sions of his paper on Gen­eral Con­sid­er­a­tions on the Mor­phol­ogy of the Nerve Cell, sent to the Inter­na­tional Med­ical Con­gress, 1894) …the con­clu­sion was reached that intel­lec­tual power, and its most noble expres­sions, tal­ent and genius, do not depend on the size or num­ber of cere­bral neu­rons, but on the rich­ness of their con­nec­tive pro­ce­ses, or in other words on the com­plex­ity of the asso­ci­a­tion path­ways to short and long distances…Adaptation and pro­fes­sional dex­ter­ity, or rather the per­fect­ing of func­tion by exer­cise (phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion, speech, writ­ing, piano-playing, mas­tery in fenc­ing, and other activ­i­ties) were explained by either a pro­gres­sive thick­en­ing of the ner­vous path­ways … excited by the pas­sage of the impulse or the for­ma­tion of new cell processes (non-congenital growth of new den­drites and exten­sion and branch­ing of axone col­lat­er­als) capa­ble of improv­ing the suit­abil­ity and the exten­sion of the con­tacts, and even of mak­ing entirely new con­nec­tions between neu­rons prim­i­tively independent”

Com­ment:  another beau­ti­ful expla­na­tion of neuroplasticity…written in 1894!

(reflec­tions dur­ing his last years, when he had to stop teach­ing): “When we have reached the age of sev­enty, the inex­orable but fore­sighted law expels us from the class­room, cut­ting off for­ever the daily chat with our pupils. I do not regret that; I con­sider it wise and rea­son­able. Chill old age, with its dis­il­lu­sion­ments and its dis­abil­i­ties, is, with rare excep­tions, incom­pat­i­ble with good oral instruc­tion, which calls for quick­ness and sharp­ness of the senses, ready, enthu­si­as­tic, and vig­or­ous dic­tion, a vibrant and robust voice, agility of mem­ory and of thought, and flex­i­bil­ity of atten­tion capa­ble of jump­ing instantly from the serene and lofty region of ideas to the vul­gar and annoy­ing require­ments of main­tain­ing order”…

But I have no right to afflict the reader with melan­choly reflec­tions. Let us repel sad­ness, which is mother of inac­tion. Let us devote our­selves to life which is energy, ren­o­va­tion, and progress, and let us keep work­ing. Only tena­cious activ­ity on behalf of truth jus­ti­fies liv­ing and gives con­so­la­tion for sor­row and injustice.”

For more, this is the link to his book:

Rec­ol­lec­tions of My Life, by San­ti­ago Ramon y Cajal.

(Pic above: Purk­inje cells, drawn by Ramon y Cajal. Source: Wikipedia.)

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