Updated: Nov 18, 2022
I came across this image as I walked through the Brains exhibition at the Wellcome Collection a few years ago: a young Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Spanish physician and scientist, immersed in his work. I was really struck by what this image represented to me, you see for many years it was believed that once we reached adulthood there was little possibility of change in the nervous system, including the brain, and it is Cajal that has come to be a symbol of this since rejected notion of a hardwired brain. It was his belief that:
“In the adult centers, the nerve paths are something ﬁxed, and immutable: everything may die, nothing may be regenerated.” Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
During our high school biology class (some 20 years ago) I remember it being drummed into us that there is no regeneration or regrowth in the nervous system, once nerves pathways died, they died, end of, and I carried this belief with me for many years. And now, well, what a turn of events. There have been numerous demonstrations of the capacity for regeneration and regrowth within the nervous system; rehabilitation for example would not be possible without this “neuroplasticity” – the ability of the human brain to change as a result of one’s experience due to its plastic and malleable nature. This is why it makes sense that when someone loses their sight for example their hearing becomes more efficient – it’s a reflection of the brain reorganising its capacity to process data given that the nature of the sensory information it now receives has changed. My point is not to rubbish Cajal’s work, he made some wonderful contributions to his field, sharing the Nobel Peace prize with fellow neuroscientist Camillo Golgi in 1906, it’s to demonstrate the changing nature of knowledge and belief and to be reminded of what can come from being open to new possibilities and novel ways of thinking, to let go of ingrained expectations and to question – is this really the only way?