Book Review: “The Brain in Search of Itself” by Benjamin Ehrlich

THE BRAIN IN SEARCH OF ITSELF: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the historical past of the neuron, by Benjamin Ehrlich


“The satan’s baby,” his household referred to as him.

There are streets that bear his identify all through Spain. He spent a long time wanting down the barrel of a microscope, peering into the tangled tissues of our nervous system. He was a peasant genius, born in a poor and soiled city within the Aragonese mountains; his father, a demon, had excessive hopes for him: when the boy was solely 5 years previous, his father dragged him to a small cave in the midst of a barren area, sat him on a rock and tried to show him arithmetic . , geography and physics. However the boy was headstrong, a “misguided and unsightly creature,” in his personal phrases, fully bored with studying, bewildered by nature, and haunted by his personal creativeness.

Rising up, he reveled in wickedness: the mayor, the priest, and a procession of neighbors would present up at his home demanding satisfaction for his or her misdeeds. The boy was, as certainly one of his academics recalled, “inattentive, lazy, disobedient and annoying, a nightmare for his dad and mom, academics and patrons”.

One other instructor predicted that he would find yourself in jail “if they do not dangle him first.”

He gained a Nobel Prize in 1906.

To tame him, his father, a barber-surgeon, flogged him till he bled, beat him with a membership, or pulled at his flesh with scorching tongs. “What a fantastic alarm to the soul, and what an instigator of vitality, is ache!” the boy would end later. “Ache is a obligatory stimulant for creativity.” However within the hell of his youth, he tried to run away from dwelling; he hid till his father discovered him, tied him up and took him round city to disgrace him.

Round that point, the boy developed an uncontrollable urge to attract, consistently, maniacally, on each obtainable floor, not simply on textbooks or scraps of paper, however even on partitions and doorways. When he did, the world receded and disappeared. He can be so enthralled that when, a few years later, when he was invited to Cambridge College to obtain an honorary diploma, he stood in the midst of a crowded road, drawing a facade, and didn’t transfer, a lot to the dismay of the group. passersby. -by. Sooner or later they referred to as the police.

He dreamed of turning into the subsequent Titian or Velázquez, however his father needed him to be a physician. After his father threw his drawings into the hearth, the boy started to cover them within the fields; he improvised artwork provides, making rudimentary brushes from crumpled paper and extracting pigments from cigarette wrappers. It was this creative fervor that led him slowly and painfully to drugs, then to microscopy and histology; starting with the corpses his father dissected earlier than him (and which the son drew in beautiful and morbid element), he plunged first into the inside of the physique, then into the world of cells, working his approach towards the organ to which his identify is sure endlessly: the mind. As a result of that child-devil was Santiago Ramón y Cajal, about whom Benjamin Ehrlich has written a passionate and detailed biography, “The mind seeking itself”.

Spanish nationwide treasure, Cajal is among the most vital scientists of all time, thought-about the daddy of recent neuroscience after demonstrating that the mind was not made up of a totally steady labyrinth of fibers —as was thought throughout the Nineteenth century—, however by particular person cells that we now name neurons, these “mysterious butterflies of the soul”, in his phrases, “whose flapping of wings could someday divulge to us the secrets and techniques of the thoughts”.

His life was certainly one of obsession and hyperbole. The true achievements of the Spanish sage mirror the self-aggrandizing claims he made about himself: he wrote that, when he performed the flute, different kids adopted him as if he have been the Pied Piper of Hamelin; later, when information of his Nobel Prize broke, he was surrounded by admirers, a few of whom adopted him to his home and stood beneath his window, chanting his identify. In accordance with his brother, he was pushed by a “blind need to excel, to be the primary in all the pieces with out listening to something to attain it.” Ehrlich writes that Cajal “claimed to have as soon as spent 20 hours instantly in his microscope, touring a millionth of a meter at a time.” He was a tremendously passionate man (“I’ve a mind that may be a slave to my coronary heart”) who engraved his identify in historical past by drive of will, however he was additionally suffering from melancholy and sickness, and suffered from his insatiable need to see the brand new; all the pieces else in his life took second place.

Ehrlich would possibly share no less than a few of his topic’s obsessive nature. Virtually all the pieces he has printed to this point belongs to Cajal: a full english translation of the dream journal from the spanish and varied gadgets. After a decade of dedication to this man, Ehrlich has a deep sympathy and perception into the workings of his thoughts. That is clearly seen in “The Mind in Search of Itself,” a deeply researched, well-written, and thoroughly crafted biography. However the energy of the guide lies much less within the writing than within the lifetime of its protagonist, filled with picaresque adventures. As a toddler he discovered to make gunpowder, constructed a makeshift cannon and fired at his neighbor’s home; he served as a army physician in Cuba, the place he contracted malaria and, throughout a guerrilla assault, grew to become delirious and fired his Remington out the window of the infirmary; he was an apprentice shoemaker, a bodybuilder (who “strutted by the streets,” Ehrlich writes, “carrying an iron bar as a substitute of a cane, which he dragged alongside the sidewalk”), a hypnotist, a chess participant, a photographer, a hypochondriac, a author, a juvenile delinquent, an insomniac, and a bona fide microscope wizard. Each time Cajal’s voice involves the fore, the guide involves life and reads like a novel.

Nevertheless it suffers from the constraints of the style: it’s, like so many biographies, full of info that not many informal or literary readers will respect. It bogs itself down with overly detailed political anecdotes, descriptions of on a regular basis life in Nineteenth-century Spain, and an onerous exposition of histological methods. Ehrlich goes to nice lengths to offer a whole and correct portrait of an enchanting scientist, and whereas he affords thought-provoking metaphors, unforgettable scenes, and plenty of fantastically worded sentences, discovering these gems additionally requires enduring the pains of academia and the strict biography. , which apparently dictate that we should observe an individual from start to dying.

However a full life is stuffed with tedium, abnormal occurrences and trivialities that fiction can purge, to achieve a deeper layer of reality. Ehrlich is conscious of this and successfully applies “literary and narrative therapies” to unveil the mysteries that the info can obscure. And but, one of many nice strengths of his guide (the gathering, as he writes, of “each hint of him, each little bit of his life and little bit of his work, every bit of details about his science, his nation, and his world”) could not resonate with a large viewers, although it is going to actually please readers who get pleasure from the sort of writing and are drawn to pious and devoted works of historical past.


Benjamin Labatut is the writer, most not too long ago, of “After we cease understanding the world”, certainly one of Guide Overview’s 10 greatest books of 2021.


THE BRAIN IN SEARCH OF ITSELF: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the historical past of the neuron, by Benjamin Ehrlich | Farrar, Strauss and Giroux | 464 pages | illustrated | $35

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