To work in the mode of Cajal

Purkinje Cell illustration by Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Purkinje Cell illustration by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

The article I found yesterday about Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s roots in fiction was a welcome addition to my overall work direction. In it, I found my own sentiments mirrored — and by one of the great leaders in neuroscience.

If we would enter adequately into Cajal’s thought in this field,” Sherrington continues, “we must suppose his entrance, through the microscope, into a world populated by tiny beings actuated by motives and striving and satisfactions not very remotely different from our own.” Cajal highlighted that subject and object—the brain scientist and the neuron—descended from the same evolutionary ancestor, contained the same physical material, and were beholden to the same mortal laws.

Here was a man who literally transformed his field, and he did it (at least in part) by reimagining the human relationship with his objects of study — animating them with qualities similar to our own, because after all, we are “descended from the same evolutionary ancestor, contained the same physical material, and were beholden to the same mortal laws.”

It’s easy to lose sight of this correspondence in our increasingly fragmented world, where experts slice off ever slimmer targets of exploratory interest and specialize to the point where they know “more than anyone else about less than everyone else”. And in these days of funding battles and the struggle to be taken seriously in the scientific world, the idea of finding correspondences between a cell and a full-sized human being might seem like too risky a prospect to even entertain.

And yet, there’s so much to be gleaned from the correspondences we find, and there’s a lot we can learn from how our neurology behaves… just as Cajal learned a lot about our neurology by understanding how the human heart and spirit behave. Beloved Distance is a sort of “reverse-reprise” on Cajal’s particular “take” — as I turn our gaze from the microscope to our macroscape and reference not Don Quixote or shadows dancing on the ceiling, but the mechanisms of neurotransmitters leaping into the gaps between our neurons.

It may sound like a stretch, within the context of 21st Century science, but Cajal was in direct conflict with some of the dominant beliefs of his day, as well. And look where his approach got him — and took us: To a whole new understanding of how we’re actually put together, without which we’d have a much less complete understanding of ourselves, and perhaps a completely different version of medicine.

I’ve always had a marked respect for Cajal. It’s my understanding that the prevailing attitude of the day was that the nervous system was all continuously interconnected, like our vascular system. Cajal was an outlier, in that he believed in the “Neuron Doctrine” which held that all cells are individual entities (and so cannot be continuously directly connected). Others were believers in the Neuron Doctrine, but Camillo Golgi (whose stain made it possible for mere humans to view neurons) in fact devoted his Nobel lecture to discounting the Neuron Doctrine. He shared the stage / prize with Cajal in 1906, so the Spaniard was literally sharing space with someone determined to tear apart his work from the scientific pulpit.

What does it take, for someone to hold forth in their work, regardless of vehement opposition? Cajal’s defiantly resilient character, which took him through years of beatings by his father, surely played a role. And yet, there seems to be more at work than a cast-iron temperament. There are flights of fancy in the mix, too. Fancy which is deeply practical and has its place alongside the driest of facts laid out on a slide beneath the microscope.

That fancy, those flights, that imagination is something we all need, to carry us forward. It both tempers us and inspires us, and it makes the long slog of the necessary work into something more than… a slog. Just as we dance between separation and unity, between distance and closeness, the dynamics of creation and observation are complementary. And when blended with intention and intelligence, they can take us in some wonderful places.

You needn’t be a polymath to grasp how mutually beneficial supposedly opposing approaches can be.

You only need to be human… with a sense of adventure.

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