The Brain through the Eyes of an Artist and Scientist

“Like the entomologist in search of colorful butterflies, my attention has chased in the gardens of the grey matter cells with delicate and elegant shapes, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, whose beating of wings may one day reveal to us the secrets of the mind.”

Santiago Ramon y Cajal in Recollections of My Life

 

Santiago Ramon y Cajal (Navarre, Spain 1852 – 934) is famous for his exquisite and realistic drawings of neurons. Cajal was the son of an anatomist and legend has it, his father used to take Cajal to graveyards in order to study and draw human anatomy. After this early exposure to anatomy, Cajal decided to pursue a career in medicine. Later, with the advent of cell staining methods, he focused on the study of neuroanatomy.  Cajal’s work in this field was essential in supporting the neuron doctrine, which states that the brain is composed by individual cells separated by gaps (synaptic clefts) as opposed to having a continuous network of cells. This idea might seem evident to us, especially nowadays where computers, staining methods, and microscopes allow us to see brain cells rather easily.  Cajal’s discoveries were, however, revolutionary for his time. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1906 with Camillo Golgi (famous for his Golgi stain) in acknowledgement of his work on the structure of the nervous system.

Sadly, most of Cajal’s works have remained as archives in Madrid, but recently, some of his best works are being exhibited around the world. His drawings are full of both art and science. It is magnificent to observe the work of a man and his pencil next to the one of a confocal microscope. There is something that Cajal was able to observe that passes inadvertently for computers: the beauty of the brain.

I’ll finish this post by sharing a couple of pictures I took at the MIT museum in the exhibit “The Beautiful Brain”. I highly recommend going to see Cajal’s drawings if you’re around Boston.

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