Fiction Gets Brainy

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Famous fictional brain, Sherlock Holmes, a character in Jane Eyre Gets Real, was engrossed by an article he recently read in The Paris Review. Entitled The Hundred Trillion Stories in Your Head, it tells the unique story of “the father of modern neuroscience”, Santiago Ramón y Caja. The first man to apply the term “plasticity” to the brain, Caja was born in 1852 in bleak and rocky Northern Spain. His father was a humble barber-surgeon, determined that his son grow up to an esteemed doctor; his mother an incurable romantic who used to sneak little Caja novels (all fiction was forbidden by the father) like candy. With this family dynamic and a slightly different twist, Caja might have matured to become Freud before Freud himself was a twinkle in his father’s eye.

Instead, devouring the creations of Cervantes, Dumas. Hugo and other literary giants led him to come up with metaphors about cell theory. Looking through a microscope for the first time, Caja rhapsodized that he saw “captivating scenes from the life of the very small.” He even wrote and illustrated his own book about a cell-sized man who travels through huge bodies who happen to inhabit Jupiter. Becoming more and more fascinated by cell anatomy and the nervous system, Caja declared that the job of the anatomist is “to separate the apparent from the real.” This gave him the revolutionary ability to visualize the brain–and the neuron–in ways that were far ahead of his time. He imagined neurons as “protoplasmic kisses–the final ecstasy of an epic love story.”

In 1906 Caja was awarded the Nobel Prize.  Along the way, Caja made many personal and subjective drawings of the neuron, treating them like objects in a still life. He credited imagination, inculcated within him by the beloved novels of his youth, with his ability to give the abstractions of science a vivid reality. In the same way, authors distort and mold their subjects into characters, to depict a truth which captures the essence of life–so that fiction becomes not an evasion of reality but its hyper-essence, distilled.


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