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The Founding Father of Neuroscience on Solitude, the Importance of Science in a Nation’s Greatness, and the Ideal Social Environment for Intellectual Achievement

By Maria Popova

The Founding Father of Neuroscience on Solitude, the Importance of Science in a Nation's Greatness, and the Ideal Social Environment for Intellectual Achievement

“Oh comforting solitude, how favorable thou art to original thought!”


“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics,” trailblazing scientist and writer Rachel Carson presciently admonished in 1953 as she made the case for protecting science, nature, and thus humanity itself from greedy and destructive political agendas. “The scientific way of thinking,” Carl Sagan wrote in his final published masterwork, “is … an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.”

Half a century before Carson and a century before Sagan, neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852–October 17, 1934) considered the crucial role of science in a nation’s welfare and greatness in his book Advice for a Young Investigator (public library) — the science counterpart to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist, and the source of Cajal’s insightful taxonomy of the six “diseases of the will” that keep the talented from achieving greatness.

Self-portrait by Cajal at his library in his thirties, from Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Cajal writes:

Today’s statesmen undoubtedly have limitations, one of which is not realizing (or at least not advocating) that the greatness and might of nations are products of science, and that justice, order, and good laws are important but secondary factors in prosperity.

But science, of course, only thrives when scientists thrive. For science to steer a society toward greatness, Cajal cautions, that society must nurture an optimal intellectual and moral environment for its inhabitants. He writes:

Like all mental activities, the accomplishments of the scientist are heavily influenced by the physical and moral environments around him. It has been said, with good reason, that the man of learning is like a delicate plant that only thrives in a special medium — soil deposited by the culture of centuries and tilled by society’s care and esteem. In favorable surroundings, even the backward type has a feeling of accomplishment, whereas in a hostile or indifferent environment even the sharpest mind is discouraged… Only the stern and heroic have the strength to overcome adverse environmental conditions and wait in obscure resignation for the approval of posterity. But society must not count on heroes because there may be no opportunity for them to appear. Instead, we must rely on people with average skills and ordinary talents who are inspired with a noble patriotism and clear ambition.

One of Cajal’s revolutionary histological drawings

Cajal considers what conditions create such an opportunity for the blossoming of noble brilliance. With the spirited conviction of one whose own life is a testament to this truth, he points to solitude — that supreme fertilizer of creative work — as chief among them:

Our major commitment … is to discover ourselves before discovering scientific truth, to mold ourselves before molding nature. To fashion a strong brain, an original mind that is ours alone — this is the preliminary work that is absolutely essential.

Echoing the central message of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he adds:

Oh comforting solitude, how favorable thou art to original thought! How satisfying and rewarding are the long winter evenings spent in the private laboratory, at the very time when educational centers are closed to their workers! Such evenings free us from poorly thought out improvisations, strengthen our patience, and refine our powers of observation. What care we zealously lavish on our own instruments — each one representing a vanity disowned or a bad habit unindulged! Because we love them we appreciate their fine points, we are aware of their defects, and we avoid the traps they occasionally set for us. In short, we understand their friendly soul, which always responds humbly and quickly to our needs.

[…]

From the point of view of actual success, it is not the instruments that are costly and require the most time, work, and patience — as we have already pointed out, it is the development and maturing of talent.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly illuminating Advice for a Young Investigator with Bob Dylan on the ideal environment for creative work and astrophysicist Janna Levin on what motivates scientists, then revisit Cajal’s revolutionary drawings of the brain.


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