Was Cajal a Newton?

Over the past few days the question has been raised: “Does Neuroscience Need a Newton?”. Gary Marcus says yes. Scicurious says “no”.neuron doctrine

I think Neuroscience has aready had one: Cajal. Read Gordon Shepherd’s 1991 book Foundations of the Neuron Doctrice. The 19th century scientists were lost, arguing about which of the artifacts seen under the microscope were which. Cajal, in remote Spain, peered through his microscope and saw neurons.

Living on the current side of this revolution, its hard to imagine the 19th century image of neural function. Were juices flowing down tubes? Were strings being pulled?

But, most importantly, without separating one neuron from another we could have no sense of processing units; no foundation for thinking about information processing. No way to separate the processing domains within cells from across cells. No way to imagine how learning could take place at a biological level or how external states could be represented in the brain. In my view, the Cajal revolution was massive, so large it is hard to conceive. This is what is meant by a “paradigm shift’.

One of the reasons Cajal may seem small is because he was so large. Sitting on this side of the paradigm shift it seems obvious. Of course the brain is made of neurons. Of course these are the fundamental processing units. But this wasn’t so obvious before Cajal. It once seemed obvious to humans that the earth was the center of the universe.

This is not to say that we have arrived, that Neuroscience is at a mature stage. We need more revolutions. These may or may not be single person revolutions, but they will occur. I disagree with Scicurious when she says that the revolution will occur in thousands of small steps. My guess is that there will be a series of quantile changes, and we are in the midst of seeing some. But  there will always be Cajal.

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