“To anthropomorphize was his genius”


“He imagined neurons as protagonists in an intense cerebral drama. Their fibers “groped to find another.” Their aching contacts became “protoplasmic kisses”—“the final ecstasy of an epic love story.””

How beautiful is this? And how timely, given how the US government wants to cut all funding to the arts. But literature and new ways of seeing and imagining drives innovation in all kinds of disciplines. How else to untether our thinking and the well-worn tracks and near-brainwashing we get in formal schooling? Drawing from as broad a range as possible engenders new ways of seeing, being and realizing.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “the father of modern neuroscience”, defied the punishments of his strict, scientific father to devour innumerable works of fiction – all of which eventually informed his work: “Reading novels primed his mind to explore more invisible realms.” Benjamin Ehrlich’s article in The Paris Review opens the door to this remarkable story as a kind of introduction to Ehrlich’s book, The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. (I haven’t read it yet.)

“Though it had emerged decades earlier, cell theory was revolutionizing—or scandalizing—the field then. Reading about it, Cajal encountered literary metaphors that drew him in, such as the famous line from the German pathologist Rudolf Virchow: “The body is a state in which every cell is a citizen.” Cajal’s first look through a microscope confirmed this idea, showing him, in his own words, “captivating scenes from life of the infinitely small.” For twenty continuous hours—or so he claimed—he watched the movement of a leucocyte away from a capillary, akin, in his vivid imagination, to high-stakes escape. He even wrote and illustrated a novel about a miniature man—about the size of a cell—traveling through bodies of gargantuan beings on Jupiter.”

Photo (c) 2011 Anders Sandberg used under Creative Commons license.

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