Exploring the Resilient Brain

Research Jottings by Larry K. Brendtro, PhD

The conquest of a new truth is undoubtedly the greatest adventure
to which a man can aspire.
[1]  ~Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934)

Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s life story is a striking example of resilience.[2] Young Santiago had terrible relations with his father. He was brilliant but rebellious, and constant discipline problems led to his expulsion from several schools. Pursuing adventure in delinquency with peers, he built a cannon and blew up a neighbor’s gate, leading to a short stay in prison. However, he displayed artistic ability as a teenager, and his father, then a medical school professor, tapped those talents. Santiago began drawing illustrations for use in his father’s teaching. Now motivated to learn, Santiago was determined to become a physician. He began his medical studies, served in the Spanish Army in Cuba where he contracted malaria, fought back to health, and then spent a 50-year career researching the brain.

In 1906, Spanish scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal received the Nobel Prize for his revolutionary neuron theory.[3] The most important quality of neurons is that they are able to change in response to experience.[4] Thus, the brain is continually being sculpted by positive experiences but also by adversity and trauma. Learning literally redesigns brain connections through a process called neuroplasticity, a concept first proposed by Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

Prior to the 20th Century, researchers believed that nerves were a continuous network like blood vessels. But individual neurons were discovered by Ramón y Cajal, who was able to stain slides of brain tissue and draw what he saw (see an example of his work in Figure 1). He proposed that intelligence and achievement resulted from the creation of new neuron connections in the brain; for example, he surmised that even learning to play a musical instrument increases the growth of neurons. He also observed that circuits retracted when not used—they were pruned away.

Figure 1. Neuron with axon and dendrites drawn by Ramón y Cajal

Ramón y Cajal attributed his success not to genius but to his resilient spirit: “The history of my merits is simple: it is the quite ordinary history of an indomitable will determined to succeed at any cost.”[5] His deep understanding of neuroplasticity of the brain has been documented by a century of research as highlighted in the accompanying article, Achievement and the Resilient Brain.


Finger, S. (2004). Santiago Ramón y Cajal: From nerve nets to neuron doctrine. In Minds behind the brain: A history of pioneers and their discoveries. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Pp. 197-216).

Perry, B., Pollard, R., Blaicley, T., Baker, W., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation and “use dependent” development of the brain: How states become traits. Infant Mental Health Journal, 16(4), 271-291.

Ramon y Cajal, S. (1897/1999). Advice to a young investigator. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

1. Ramon y Cajal, 1897/1999, p. 49.
2. Finger, 2004.
3. Ramon y Cajal shared the Nobel Prize with Italian scientist Camillo Golgi who had developed the staining technique, but Golgi clung to outdated notions and disputed the theory of neurons.
4. Perry et al, 1995.
5. Finger, 2004. p. 216.


Achievement and the Resilient Brain
by Larry Brendtro
Learning and problem solving redesigns the brain. This article highlights findings from neuroscience and positive youth development on how to foster achievement and build intelligence.

Click here to access this complimentary article.

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