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
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–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
of My Life
“–so we gain peak directly into his research and

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

— “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

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

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
Age 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.

Tags: alvaro fer­nan­dez,
brain, brain plasticity, neuron, neuroplasticity, neuroscience, ramon y cajal

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