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Book review: “The Brain Finds Itself” by Benjamin Ehrlich

The Thoughts in Search of itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron, by Benjamin Ehrlich


“The Satan’s Little one,” his household referred to as him.

There are streets named after him all through Spain. He is spent many years staring into the nozzle of a microscope, analyzing the tangled tissues of our nervous system. He was a genius peasant born in a poor city within the highlands of Aragon. His father – himself a demon – had excessive hopes for him: when the boy was solely 5 years previous, his father dragged him right into a small cave in the midst of a barren subject, sat him on a rock and tried to show him arithmetic, geography and physics. However the boy was cussed—”a wayward and unloved creature,” as he put it—totally bored with studying, bewildered by nature and haunted by his creativeness.

Rising up, he was blessed with evil: the mayor, the priest, and a procession of neighbors demanded satisfaction for his misdeeds. The kid was, as one in every of his lecturers remembers, “inattentive, lazy, disobedient and aggravated, a nightmare for his mother and father, lecturers, and caretakers.”

One other instructor predicted that he would find yourself in jail, “in the event that they hadn’t hanged him first.”

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906.

To tame him, his father – a surgeon’s barber – whipped him till he bled, beat him with a baton or tightened his flesh with scorching tongs. “What a terrific alarm for the soul, and a stimulant of power, is ache!” The boy concludes later. “Ache is a crucial motivator for creativity.” However in his youth he tried to flee from his house. He hid till his father discovered him, tied him up and walked him throughout city to his disgrace.

Round this time, the boy developed an uncontrollable urge to color – completely and madly – on each accessible floor, not simply on textbooks or scraps of paper, however even on partitions and doorways. When he did, the world receded and disappeared. He would develop into so intrigued that when, a number of years later, when he was invited to Cambridge College for an honorary diploma, he stood in the midst of a busy road, painted a facade, and didn’t transfer, to the consternation of passersby. -by. Sooner or later, the police have been referred to as.

He dreamed of turning into the subsequent Titian or Velazquez, however his father wished him to develop into a health care provider. After his father threw his drawings into the fireplace, the boy started to cover them within the fields. He improvised artwork provides, made uncooked brushes with wadding paper, and milked pigments from cigarette casings. It was this creative fervor that slowly and painfully led him to medication, after which to microscopy and histology. Starting with the corpses his father had dissected earlier than him (which the son had painted in marvelous and satisfying element), he delved first into the inside of the physique, then the world of cells, pointing his method towards the organ to which it belonged. The identify is eternally related: the mind. As a result of that demonic little one was Santiago Ramón y Cajal, about whom Benjamin Ehrlich wrote a meticulous and correct biography, “The Mind Searches For Itself.”

A Spanish nationwide treasure, Cajal is among the most essential scientists of all time and is taken into account the daddy of contemporary neuroscience having demonstrated that the mind was not made up of a totally steady labyrinth of fibers – as was believed throughout the nineteenth century – however fairly. By particular person cells we now name neurons, these “mysterious butterflies of the soul,” as he places it, “the strokes of their wings could at some point disclose to us the secrets and techniques of the thoughts.”

His life was an obsession and exaggeration. The actual achievements of Spanish students replicate the claims he exaggerates about himself: he wrote that when he performed the flute, different kids adopted him as if he have been an oboe; Later, when information of his Nobel Prize broke, followers swept over him, a few of whom adopted him house and stood below his window chanting his identify. In accordance with his brother, he was motivated by a “blind want to overcome, to be first in every thing with out making up for something so as to obtain.” Ehrlich writes that Kajal “claimed to have as soon as spent 20 consecutive hours on his microscope, touring one millionth of a meter at a time”. He was a really passionate man (“I’ve a thoughts enslaved to my coronary heart”) who carved his identify into historical past by sheer pressure of will, however he was additionally troubled by melancholy and illness, and he suffered due to his indomitable want to see the brand new All the pieces else in his life got here second .

Ehrlich could share no less than a few of the morbid nature of his topic. Virtually every thing he is posted thus far is about Cajal: A whole translation into English of the Spanish dream journal And plenty of articles. After a decade of dedication to this man, Ehrlich possesses deep compassion and nice perception into the best way his thoughts works. That is evident in “The Mind In Search of Itself,” a deeply thought-out, well-written and lovingly crafted autobiography. However the e-book’s energy lies not a lot within the writing as within the lifetime of its hero, filled with picaresque adventures. As a boy, he discovered the right way to make gunpowder, made a makeshift cannon and fired it at his neighbor’s home; He labored as a army physician in Cuba, the place he contracted malaria, and through a guerrilla assault, he turned delirious and shot Remington from the infirmary window; He was a cobbler’s apprentice, bodybuilder (he “walked the streets,” writes Ehrlich, “carrying an iron bar as an alternative of a strolling stick, which he pulled alongside the sidewalk”), hypnotist, chess participant, photographer, hypocrite, author, juvenile Delinquent, insomniac and a real magician with a microscope. Each time Kajal’s voice takes the lead, the e-book comes alive and reads like a novel.

Nevertheless it suffers from style limitations: it, like many biographies, is filled with info that many informal or literary readers won’t respect. I stumbled upon overly detailed political anecdotes, descriptions of on a regular basis life in nineteenth-century Spain, and the grueling show of textile strategies. Ehrlich does his finest to provide an entire and correct image of a beautiful world, and whereas he presents thought-provoking metaphors, unforgettable scenes, and lots of superbly worded phrases, to seek out these pearls one should additionally endure the trials of academia and a rigorous biography, which seemingly dictate that we must always To comply with an individual from beginning to loss of life.

However the entire life is filled with boredom, atypical occasions and minute particulars that creativeness can erase, to succeed in a deeper layer of fact. Ehrlich realizes this, and actively applies “literary and narrative remedies” to unravel the mysteries that information can obscure. Nonetheless, one in every of his e-book’s nice strengths (the gathering, he writes, “each hint of him, each a part of his life and piece of his work, each little bit of details about his information, his nation and his world”) could not resonate with a large viewers, although it It would undoubtedly delight readers who take pleasure in such a writing, and who’re drawn to devoted and correct works of historical past.


Benjamin Lapatut is the creator of When We Cease Understanding the World, one in every of Guide Evaluation’s Prime 10 Books of 2021.


The thoughts looking for itself Santiago Ramon y Cajal and the Neuron Story, Benjamin Ehrlich | Farrar, Strauss and Jirou | 464 p. | illustrated | $35