By Benjamin Ehrlich
Recommended on: 10th April 2022
The Brain in Search of Itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron, by Benjamin Ehrlich. What a magnificent book! Longtime fans of Learning How to Learn know that we’re in turn longtime fans of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience. As a youngster, Santiago struggled markedly with his learning, and as this remarkably researched book describes. We can’t help but wonder whether Santiago might have had dyslexia coupled with dyslexia’s frequent comorbid companion: ADHD. Hints and clues abound through the text:
- “…though he struggled to remember the spelling of words or their order within a sentence, Santiagüé never forgot an image… his talent allowed him to reproduce even the most intricate maps to perfection.
- “… his academic reputation was far from stellar. Cajal ‘was the typical student who was inattentive, lazy, disobedient, and annoying, a nightmare for his parents, teachers, and patrons,’ one teacher at Huesca recalled. He ‘will only stop in jail,’ predicted another, ‘if they do not hang him first.’
- “[Santiago] passed his examinations at the end of the year in Latin I , Castilian I , Principles and Exercises in Arithmetic, and Christian History and Doctrine , earning the lowest possible grades—no doubt aided by the fact that [his father] had performed a life-saving surgery on the wife of one of the examination judges.
- “Careful not to slacken ‘the creative tension of the mind,’ he avoided gossiping and reading newspapers , ceased writing short stories , abandoned the study of hypnotism , and even quit playing chess . He exercised his will not because he was uninterested in the world around him but precisely because he knew himself to be so distractible. [Those with ADHD can have hyperfocus in what they are interested in—but also be easily distractable.]
- “All who had known the Nobel Prize winner as a young delinquent responded with the same expression: utter shock.”
Cajal was a fabulously gifted and prescient researcher who pushed back against the stodgy “academic reactionists“ who, then as now, clung to outmoded ideas. (One of Cajal’s colleagues disparaged the new truths of microscopy as “pure fantasy.”) This is a brilliant, beautifully-written book for all who wish to have a sense of how neuroscience was moved to a solid, modern foundation. A great biography of a great man.
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