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

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 named after him all over Spain. He spent decades staring down the barrel of a microscope, peering into the tangled tissues of our nervous system. He was a peasant genius, born in a poor town in the Aragonese highlands; his father – himself a devil – 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 stubborn – a “capricious and unlovable creature”, in his own words – completely uninterested in learning, mystified 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 to demand satisfaction for his misdeeds. The child was, as one of his teachers recalled, “inattentive, lazy, disobedient and boring, a nightmare for his parents, teachers and bosses”.

Another teacher predicted that he would end up in prison “if they didn’t hang him first”.

He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1906.

To tame him, his father, a barber-surgeon, whipped him until he bled, hit him with a club or pulled on his flesh with heated pliers. “What a great alarm for the soul, and instigator of energy, is pain!” the boy would conclude later. “Pain is a necessary stimulus for creativity.” But in the hellscape of his youth, he tried to run away from home; he hid until his father found him, tied him up, and marched him through town to shame him.

Around this 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 become so captivated 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, sketching a facade, and did not move. not, to the dismay of passers-by. -by. At some point the police were called.

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 crude brushes with cotton wool paper and milking 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 became interested first in the interior of the body, then in the world of the cells, moving on to the organ to which his name is forever linked: the brain. For that devilish child was Santiago Ramón y Cajal, about whom Benjamin Ehrlich wrote a passionate and meticulous biography, “The Brain in Search of Itself”.

Spain’s national treasure, Cajal is one of the most important scientists of all time, considered the father of modern neuroscience after proving that the brain was not made up of a fully continuous maze of fibers – as previously thought. in the 19th century – but rather by individual cells which we now call neurons, those “mysterious butterflies of the soul”, in his words, “whose fluttering wings may one day reveal to us the secrets of the mind “.

His life was one of obsession and hyperbole. The real-life achievements of the Spanish scholar reflect the self-glorifying claims he made about himself: he wrote that when he played the flute, other children followed him as if he were the flute player; later, when news of his Nobel Prize broke, he was swarmed by admirers, some of whom followed him home and stood under his window chanting his name. According to his brother, he was driven by a “blind desire to win, to be the first in everything without redeeming anything to achieve it”. Ehrlich writes that Cajal “claimed to have once spent 20 hours straight in front of his microscope, scanning a millionth of a meter at a time”. He was an extremely passionate man (“I have a brain enslaved to my heart”) who engraved his name in history by force of will, but he was also beset by melancholy and disease, and suffered because of his unquenchable desire to see the new; all the rest of his life came second.

Ehrlich could share at least some of the obsessive nature of his subject. Almost everything he’s published so far is about Cajal: a full English translation of the Spaniard’s dream diary and several articles. After a decade of devotion to this man, Ehrlich has deep sympathy and insight into the workings of his mind. This is evident in “The Brain in Search of Itself,” a deeply researched, well-written, and lovingly crafted biography. But the strength of the book lies less in the writing than in the life of its protagonist, filled with picaresque adventures. As a child, he learned to make gunpowder, built a makeshift cannon, and fired it 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 pulled his Remington out of the infirmary window; he was an apprentice shoemaker, coachbuilder (who “strut the streets”, writes Ehrlich, “carrying an iron bar instead of a cane, which he dragged along the pavement”), a hypnotist, a chess player , a photographer, a hypochondriac, a writer, a juvenile delinquent, an insomniac and a real magician under the microscope. Every time Cajal’s voice takes center stage, the book comes to life and reads a bit like a novel.

But it suffers from genre constraints: it is, like so many biographies, jam-packed with information that few casual or literary readers will appreciate. It gets bogged down in overly detailed political anecdotes, descriptions of daily life in 19th-century Spain, and a tedious exposition of histological techniques. Ehrlich goes to great lengths to paint a comprehensive and demanding portrait of a fascinating scientist, and while he delivers thought-provoking metaphors, unforgettable scenes and many beautifully phrased phrases, to find these gems one must also endure the rigors from academia and a strict biography. , which apparently dictate that we must follow a person from birth until death.

But a busy life is filled with annoyances, ordinary events, and minutiae that fiction can erase, to reach a deeper layer of truth. Ehrlich is aware of this and effectively applies “literary and narrative treatments” to reveal the mysteries that facts can obscure. And yet one of the great strengths of his book (the collection, as he writes, of “every trace of him, every slice of his life and shred of his work, every bit of information about his science, his country and his world”) may not resonate with a wide audience, though it will no doubt appeal to readers who love this kind of writing and are drawn to dedicated and picky works of history.


Benjamín Labatut is the author, most recently, of “When we stop understanding the world”, one of the 10 best books of 2021 from the book review.


THE BRAIN IN SEARCH OF SELF: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the History of the Neuron, by Benjamin Ehrlich | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 464 pages | Illustrated | $35

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