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Neuroplasticity as seen by one of its earliest scientist proponents: Neuroscience pioneer Santiago Ramón y Cajal

– One of Ramón y Cajal’s icon­ic images, show­ing a Purk­in­je neu­ron with its tree­like struc­ture

A cou­ple of weeks ago The New York Times pub­lished an excel­lent arti­cle about the life and work of neu­ro­science pio­neer San­ti­a­go Ramón y Cajal: Hunched Over a Micro­scope, He Sketched the Secrets of How the Brain Works.

Please go and read it–and enjoy those amaz­ing images!

I recent­ly read Rec­ol­lec­tions of My Life, Ramón y Cajal’s fas­ci­nat­ing auto­bi­og­ra­phy. The book com­bines a live­ly win­dow into his life and think­ing, com­bined with his main con­tri­bu­tions to brain research.

Since he said “Every man can, of he so desires, become the sculp­tor of his own brain,” there­by empha­siz­ing what we now call life­long neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty (the abil­i­ty of the brain to rewire itself through expe­ri­ence), let’s try to see what he had in mind by dis­cussing some oth­er things he had to say in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy:

– (when dis­cussing his own 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: Strong and hope­ful belief in neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, even if he couldn’t prove it then.

– “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 city or coun­try for a while.

– (sum­ma­riz­ing  a sci­en­tif­ic paper he sub­mit­ted in 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:  Wow…and writ­ten in 1894!

– (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:  Anoth­er wow.

– “…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: 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.

– Anoth­er icon­ic image, of a pyra­mi­dal neu­ron in the cere­bral cor­tex

– (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.”

  • Com­ment:  What a dis­play of wisdom…what a dis­play of a beau­ti­ful­ly-sculpt­ed brain .

 


To read more, this is the link to his auto­bi­og­ra­phy:

Relat­ed arti­cles:

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