Neuroplasticity As Seen by Neuroscience Pioneer Santiago Ramón Y Cajal 100 Years Ago

Neuroplasticity As Seen by Neuroscience Pioneer Santiago Ramón Y Cajal 100 Years Ago

Science April 03, 2017 / By Alvaro Fernandez
Neuroplasticity As Seen by Neuroscience Pioneer Santiago Ramón Y Cajal 100 Years Ago

"Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain" - Ramon y Cajal

The Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis hosts a wonderful temporary exhibit highlighting the medical illustrations of neuroplasticity pioneer Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Titled The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, it will remain open until May 21st, 2017.

Who was Ramon y Cajal? Why does his research matter?

Well, let's start with the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity--or brain plasticity-- refers to the brain's ability to change throughout life, to rewire itself based on experience. The human brain has an amazing ability to reorganize itself by generating new neurons and by forming new connections between neurons.

It was believed for a long time that, as we got older, the brain became "fixed." Now we know that the brain never stops changing, and that neuroplasticity is the capacity of the brain to change with learning, and that's why there's so much interest and hope around ways to harness that neuroplasticity to lead better lives, to enhance our brains, to delay brain health decline.

And Ramon y Cajal was one of the first scientists to see this and to create the foundations of modern neuroscience.

Fortunately for us he wrote a fascinating memoir--titled "Recollections of My Life"--so we gain peak directly into his research and thinking.

Since he said, "Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain," thereby emphasizing what we now call lifelong neuroplasticity, let's see what he had in mind by discussing some other things he had to say in his book--published exactly 100 years ago, in 1917:

— (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."

My comment: Here he shows a strong and hopeful belief in neuroplasticity, even if he couldn't prove it then scientifically.

— "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."

My 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 originally 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".

My 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"

My comment: Beautiful display of the scientific mindset.

— (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."

My comment: What a display of wisdom…what a display of a beautifully-sculpted brain.

And a final reflection to wrap-up this article: What will we think and do about neuroplasticity 100 years from now, in 2117?

-- Alvaro Fernandez is the co-author of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Improve Brain Health and Performance at Any is a popular blog tracking the latest on neuroplasticity, cognitive health and brain fitness, combined with fun brain teasers and games to help adults sharpen their minds.

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