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

by YAR

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

“The devil’s child”, his family called him.

There are streets that bear his name throughout Spain. He spent decades looking 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 dirty town in the Aragonese mountains; his father, a demon, had high hopes for him: when the boy was only 5 years old, his father dragged him to a small cave in the middle of a barren field, sat him on a rock and tried to teach him arithmetic . , geography and physics. But the boy was headstrong, a “misguided and unpleasant creature,” in his own words, completely uninterested in learning, bewildered by nature, and haunted by his own imagination.

Growing up, he reveled in wickedness: the mayor, the priest, and a procession of neighbors would show up at his house demanding satisfaction for their misdeeds. The boy was, as one of his teachers recalled, “inattentive, lazy, disobedient and annoying, a nightmare for his parents, teachers and patrons”.

Another teacher predicted that he would end up in jail, “if they don’t hang him first.”

He won a Nobel Prize in 1906.

To tame him, his father, a barber-surgeon, flogged him until he bled, beat him with a club, or pulled at his flesh with hot tongs. “What a great alarm to the soul, and what an instigator of energy, is pain!” the boy would finish later. “Pain is a necessary stimulant for creativity.” But in the hell of his youth, he tried to run away from home; he hid until his father found him, tied him up and took him around town to shame him.

Around that time, the boy developed an uncontrollable urge to draw, constantly, maniacally, on every available surface, not just on textbooks or scraps of paper, but even on walls and doors. When he did, the world receded and disappeared. He would be so enthralled that once, many years later, when he was invited to Cambridge University to receive an honorary degree, he stood in the middle of a crowded street, drawing a facade, and did not move, much to the dismay of the crowd. passersby. -by. At some point they called the police.

He dreamed of becoming the next Titian or Velázquez, but his father wanted him to be a doctor. After his father threw his drawings into the fire, the boy began to hide them in the fields; he improvised art supplies, making rudimentary brushes from crumpled paper and extracting pigments from cigarette wrappers. It was this artistic fervor that led him slowly and painfully to medicine, then to microscopy and histology; beginning with the corpses his father dissected before him (and which the son drew in exquisite and morbid detail), he plunged first into the interior of the body, then into the world of cells, working his way toward the organ to which his name is bound forever: the brain. Because that child-devil was Santiago Ramón y Cajal, about whom Benjamin Ehrlich has written a passionate and detailed biography, “The brain in search of itself”.

Spanish national treasure, Cajal is one of the most important scientists of all time, considered the father of modern neuroscience after demonstrating that the brain was not made up of a completely continuous labyrinth of fibers —as was thought during the 19th century—, but by individual cells that we now call neurons, those “mysterious butterflies of the soul”, in his words, “whose flapping of wings may one day reveal to us the secrets of the mind”.

His life was one of obsession and hyperbole. The true achievements of the Spanish sage reflect the self-aggrandizing claims he made about himself: he wrote that, when he played the flute, other children followed him as if he were the Pied Piper of Hamelin; later, when news of his Nobel Prize broke, he was surrounded by admirers, some of whom followed him to his house and stood under his window, chanting his name. According to his brother, he was driven by a “blind desire to excel, to be the first in everything without paying attention to anything to achieve it.” Ehrlich writes that Cajal “claimed to have once spent 20 hours directly in his microscope, traveling a millionth of a meter at a time.” He was a tremendously passionate man (“I have a brain that is a slave to my heart”) who engraved his name in history by force of will, but he was also plagued by melancholy and illness, and suffered from his insatiable desire to see the new; everything else in his life took second place.

Ehrlich might share at least some of his subject’s obsessive nature. Almost everything he has published so far belongs to Cajal: a complete English translation of the dream journal from the Spanish and various articles. After a decade of dedication to this man, Ehrlich has a deep sympathy and insight into the workings of his mind. This is clearly seen in “The Brain in Search of Itself,” a deeply researched, well-written, and carefully crafted biography. But the strength of the book lies less in the writing than in the life of its protagonist, full of picaresque adventures. As a child he learned to make gunpowder, built a makeshift cannon and fired at his neighbor’s house; he served as a military doctor in Cuba, where he contracted malaria and, during a guerrilla attack, became delirious and fired his Remington out the window of the infirmary; he was an apprentice shoemaker, a bodybuilder (who “strutted through the streets,” Ehrlich writes, “carrying an iron bar instead of a cane, which he dragged along the sidewalk”), a hypnotist, a chess player, a photographer, a hypochondriac, a writer, a juvenile delinquent, an insomniac, and a bona fide microscope wizard. Every time Cajal’s voice comes to the fore, the book comes to life and reads like a novel.

But it suffers from the limitations of the genre: it is, like so many biographies, packed with information that not many casual or literary readers will appreciate. It gets bogged down in overly detailed political anecdotes, descriptions of daily life in 19th-century Spain, and an onerous exposition of histological techniques. Ehrlich goes to great lengths to give a complete and accurate portrait of a fascinating scientist, and while he offers thought-provoking metaphors, unforgettable scenes, and many beautifully worded sentences, finding these gems also requires enduring the rigors of academia and the strict biography. , which apparently dictate that we must follow a person from birth to death.

But a full life is full of tedium, ordinary occurrences and minutiae that fiction can purge, to reach a deeper layer of truth. Ehrlich is aware of this and effectively applies “literary and narrative treatments” to unveil the mysteries that the facts can obscure. And yet, one of the great strengths of his book (the collection, as he writes, of “every trace of him, every bit of his life and bit of his work, every piece of information about his science, his country, and his world”) may not resonate with a wide audience, though it will certainly please readers who enjoy this type of writing and are drawn to dedicated and punctilious works of history.

Benjamín Labatut is the author, most recently, of “When we stop understanding the world”, one of Book Review’s 10 best books of 2021.

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

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