Aug 31, 2008
By: Alvaro Fernandez
Over the last few weeks I have been reading Recollections of My Life, the impressive autobiography 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 which 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.)