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

The Mind Searching for Itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron, by Benjamin Ehrlich

“The Devil’s Child,” his family called him.

There are streets named after him throughout Spain. He’s spent decades staring into the nozzle of a microscope, examining the tangled tissues of our nervous system. He was a genius peasant born in a poor town in the highlands of Aragon. His father – himself a demon – had high hopes for him: when the boy was only 5 years old, his father dragged him into 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 wayward and unloved creature,” as he put it—utterly uninterested in learning, bewildered by nature and haunted by his imagination.

Growing up, he was blessed with evil: the mayor, the priest, and a procession of neighbors demanded satisfaction for his misdeeds. The child was, as one of his teachers recalls, “inattentive, lazy, disobedient and annoyed, a nightmare for his parents, teachers, and caretakers.”

Another teacher predicted that he would end up in prison, “if 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 until he bled, beat him with a baton or tightened his flesh with hot tongs. “What a great alarm for the soul, and a stimulant of energy, is pain!” The boy concludes later. “Pain is a necessary motivator for creativity.” But in his youth he tried to escape from his home. He hid until his father found him, tied him up and walked him across town to his shame.

Around this time, the boy developed an uncontrollable urge to paint – permanently and madly – 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 intrigued that once, several years later, when he was invited to Cambridge University for an honorary degree, he stood in the middle of a busy street, painted a facade, and did not move, to the consternation of passersby. -by. At some point, the police were called.

He dreamed of becoming the next Titian or Velazquez, but his father wanted him to become a doctor. After his father threw his drawings into the fire, the boy began to hide them in the fields. He improvised art supplies, made raw brushes with wadding paper, and milked pigments from cigarette casings. It was this artistic fervor that slowly and painfully led him to medicine, and then to microscopy and histology. Beginning with the corpses his father had dissected before him (which the son had painted in marvelous and satisfying detail), he delved first into the interior of the body, then the world of cells, pointing his way toward the organ to which it belonged. The name is forever associated: the brain. Because that demonic child was Santiago Ramón y Cajal, about whom Benjamin Ehrlich wrote a meticulous and accurate biography, “The Brain Searches For Itself.”

A Spanish national treasure, Cajal is one of the most important scientists of all time and is considered the father of modern neuroscience having demonstrated that the brain was not made up of a completely continuous labyrinth of fibers – as was believed during the nineteenth century – but rather. By individual cells we now call neurons, those “mysterious butterflies of the soul,” as he puts it, “the strokes of their wings may one day reveal to us the secrets of the mind.”

His life was an obsession and exaggeration. The real achievements of Spanish scholars reflect the claims he exaggerates about himself: he wrote that when he played the flute, other children followed him as if he were an oboe; Later, when news of his Nobel Prize broke, fans swept over him, some of whom followed him home and stood under his window chanting his name. According to his brother, he was motivated by a “blind desire to conquer, to be first in everything without making up for anything in order to achieve.” Ehrlich writes that Kajal “claimed to have once spent 20 consecutive hours on his microscope, traveling one millionth of a meter at a time”. He was a very passionate man (“I have a mind enslaved to my heart”) who carved his name into history by sheer force of will, but he was also afflicted by depression and disease, and he suffered because of his indomitable desire to see the new Everything else in his life came second .

Ehrlich may share at least some of the morbid nature of his subject. Almost everything he has published so far is about Cajal: a complete translation into English of the Spanish dream magazine and many more articles. After a decade of dedication to this man, Ehrlich possesses deep compassion and great insight into the way his mind works. This is evident in “The Brain In Search of Itself,” a deeply thought-out, well-written and lovingly crafted autobiography. But the book’s strength lies not so much in the writing as in the life of its hero, full of picaresque adventures. As a boy, he learned how to make gunpowder, made a makeshift cannon and fired it at his neighbor’s house; He worked as a military doctor in Cuba, where he contracted malaria, and during a guerrilla attack, he became 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 instead of a walking stick, which he pulled along the sidewalk”), hypnotist, chess player, photographer, hypocrite, writer, juvenile Delinquent, insomniac and a true magician with a microscope. Every time Kajal’s voice takes the lead, the book comes alive and reads like a novel.

But it suffers from genre limitations: it, like many biographies, is full of information that many casual or literary readers will not appreciate. I stumbled upon overly detailed political anecdotes, descriptions of everyday life in nineteenth-century Spain, and the grueling display of textile techniques. Ehrlich does his best to give a complete and accurate picture of a wonderful world, and while he offers thought-provoking metaphors, unforgettable scenes, and many beautifully worded phrases, to find these pearls one must also endure the rigors of academia and a rigorous biography, which seemingly dictate that we should To follow a person from birth to death.

But the whole life is full of boredom, ordinary events and minute details that imagination can erase, to reach a deeper layer of truth. Ehrlich realizes this, and actively applies “literary and narrative treatments” to unravel the mysteries that facts can obscure. However, one of his book’s great strengths (the collection, he writes, “every trace of him, every part of his life and piece of his work, every bit of information about his knowledge, his country and his world”) may not resonate with a wide audience, though it It will undoubtedly delight readers who enjoy this type of writing, and who are drawn to devoted and accurate works of history.

Benjamin Lapatut is the author of When We Stop Understanding the World, one of Book Review’s Top 10 Books of 2021.

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

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