For the father of modern neuroscience, cellular anatomy was like the most exciting fiction.
Fiction is, by definition, a world away from fact—but Santiago Ramón y Cajal, often heralded as “the father of modern neuroscience,” used it to find objective truth. Cajal spent his days at the microscope, gazing down at faint, entangled fibers that appeared to his fellow anatomists as inscrutable labyrinths. Contrary to prevailing theory, the Spaniard discerned that the nervous system, including the brain, comprises distinctly individual cells (neurons), which, he theorized, must communicate across the infinitesimal spaces between them (synapses). It was Cajal who first applied the term plasticity to the brain; he went so far as to recommend “cerebral gymnastics” for mental enhancement, presaging twenty-first century insights and trends about brain exercise. “If he is so determined,” Cajal said, “every man can be the sculptor of his own brain.” If all Russian literature comes from Gogol’s “Overcoat,” and all modern American literature comes from “a book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” then international brain research, including grand projects like the BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project, emerges from the unlikely work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
Cajal was born in 1852, high in the mountains of northern Spain; his head always seemed to belong in the clouds. The landscape of his childhood was epic. Aragonese folklore echoed through dust-colored pueblos, swept through by the specters of conquests and kings. The young Cajal idolized these legendary figures, maybe because village life was incessantly prosaic. Alto Aragón was notoriously inhospitable; the highland region that Robert Hughes, in his biography of Goya (another native son), noted for its “sour wine, straw bedding, tough meat”—“semi-troglodytic conditions.” Almost nothing grew from the callous, fissured soil; Cajal’s home was a ramshackle pile of cobblestone. “Not a flower pot in the windows,” he recalls in his autobiography, Recollections of My Life: “not the smallest decoration on the fronts of the houses, nothing in a word, to indicate the slightest feeling for beauty.” Read More