Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y CajalBeautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal by Larry W. Swanson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like the entomologist in pursuit of brightly colored butterflies, my attention hunted, in the flower garden of the gray matter, cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may someday—who knows?—clarify the secret of mental life.

I love walking around cathedrals because they are sublime examples of vital art. I say “vital” because the art is not just seen, but lived through. Every inch of a cathedral has at least two levels of significance: aesthetic and theological. Beauty, in other words, walks hand in hand with a certain view of the world. Indeed, beauty is an essential part of this view of the world, and thus facts and feelings are blended together into one seamlessly intelligible whole: a philosophy made manifest in stone.

The situation that pertains today is quite different. It is not that our present view of the world is inherently less beautiful; but that the vital link between the visual arts and our view of the world has been severed. Apropos of this, I often think of one of Richard Feynman’s anecdotes. He once gave a tour of a factory to a group of artists, trying to explain modern technology to them. The artists, in turn, were supposed to incorporate what they learned into a piece for an exhibition. But, as Feynman notes, almost none of the pieces really had anything to do with the technology. Art and science had tried to make contact, and failed.

This is why I am so intrigued by the anatomical drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. For here we see a successful unification, revealing the same duality of significance as in a cathedral: his drawings instruct and enchant at once.

Though relatively obscure in the anglophone world, Cajal is certainly one of the most important scientists of history. He is justly considered to be the father of neuroscience. Cajal’s research into the fine structures of the brain laid the foundation for the discipline. At a time when neurons were only a hypothesis, Cajal not only convinced the scientific world of their existence (as against the reticular theory), but documented several different types of neurons, describing their fine structure—nucleus, axon, and dendrites—and the flow of information within and between nerve cells.

As we can see in his Advice to a Young Investigator, Cajal in his adulthood became a passionate advocate for scientific research. But he did not always wish to be a scientist. As a child he was far more interested in painting; it was only the pressure of his father, a doctor, which turned him in the direction of research. And as this book shows, he never really gave up his artistic ambition; he only channelled it into another direction.

Research in Cajal’s day was far simpler. Instead of a team of scientists working with a high-powered MRI, we have the lonely investigator hunched over a microscope. The task was no easier for being simpler, however. Besides patience, ingenuity, and logical mind—the traits of any good scientist—a microanatomist back then needed a prodigious visual acumen. The task was to see properly: to extract a sensible figure from the blurry and chaotic images under the microscope. To meet this challenge Cajal not had to create new methods—staining the neurons to make them more visible—but to train his eye. And in both he proved a master.

He would often spend hours at the microscope, looking and looking without taking any notes. His analytic mind was not only at work during these periods, making guesses about cell functions and deductions about information flow, but also his visual imagination: he had to hold the cell’s form within his mind, see the the cells in context and in isolation, since the fine details of their structure were highly suggestive of their behavior and purpose. His drawings were the final expression of his visual process: “A graphic representation of the object observed guarantees the exactness of the observation itself.” For Cajal, as for Leonardo da Vinci, drawing was a form of thinking.

Though by now long outdated by subsequent research, Cajal’s drawings have maintained their appeal, both as diagrams and as works of art. With the aid of a short caption—ably provided by Eric Newman in this volume—the drawings spring to life as records of scientific research. They summarize complex processes, structures, and relations with brilliant clarity, making the essential point graspable in an instant.

Purely as drawings they are no less brilliant. The twisting and sprawling forms of neurons; the chaotic lattices of interconnected cells; the elegant architecture of our sensory organs—all this possesses an otherworldly beauty. The brain, such an intimate part of ourselves, is revealed to be intensely alien. One is naturally reminded of the surrealists by these dreamlike landscapes; and indeed Lorca and Dalí were both aware of Cajal’s work. Yet Cajal’s drawings are perhaps more fantastic than anything the surrealists ever produced, all the more bizarre for being true.

Even the names of these drawings wouldn’t be out of place in a modern gallery: “Cuneate nucleus of a kitten,” “Neurons in the midbrain of a sixteen-day-old trout,” “Axons in the Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum of a drowned man.” Science can be arrestingly poetic.

One of the functions of art is to help us to understand ourselves. The science of the brain, in a much different way, aims to do the same thing. It seems wholly right, then, that these two enterprises should unite in Cajal, the artistic investigator of our nervous system. And this volume is an ideal place to witness his accomplishment. The large, glossy images are beautiful. The commentary frames and explains, but does not distract. The essays on Cajal’s life and art are concise and incisive, and are supplemented by an essay on modern brain imaging that brings the book up to date. It is a cathedral of a book.

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