The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal


Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Self-portrait, taken by Cajal in his laboratory in Valencia when he was in his early thirties, c. 1885. Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid.

When it comes to that distinctly human sensation we call awe, little can rival the complexity of our own brains to elicit it. Indeed, so staggering are the numbers— current estimates have it that each contains 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion connections between them—that the organ seems to founder before its own immensity. No less astonishing, though fortunately more comprehensible, are its structures—the cells’ elaborate shapes and the byzantine networks by which they communicate— and this is exactly what we get to see in the exquisite drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. But to mistake this for a show about the brain alone would be to miss half the picture. For because these are drawings, what we really get is the brain distilled through an individual mind—a mind so keen, in this case, that it altered our understanding of neuroanatomy. In their exploratory, perceptual, and intuitive power, the 80 small gems on view here make a tremendous case for drawing as a way of thinking—and one with provocative implications for today’s interdisciplinary ethos.1

A Spanish neuroscientist and pathologist working at the turn of the last century, Cajal began his career as an artist. At the urging of a disapproving father he went on to pursue science, but he never gave up his original passions (in addition to drawing, he was also an accomplished photographer and writer). For Cajal, the lab doubled as a studio, his instruments and chemicals sharing equal space with ink and paper. Because photomicroscopy was then in its infancy, the only way to preserve a clear image of what was seen under the microscope was to draw it. And draw he did: between 1890 and 1934 Cajal is said to have made some 2,900 drawings.

While the imagery in the show is undeniably beautiful, some of its forms so intricate one wishes for a microscope of one’s own, it’s the vitality of the line that speaks most eloquently. In the minute strokes, dashes, and contours one feels Cajal’s passion for his subject, those cellular denizens of the brain he called “the mysterious butterflies of the soul”—and the intensity of his probing gaze. Raw and unselfconscious (considered scientific illustrations rather than “art,” the drawings are anything but pristine), and in compositions often as lyrical as they are illuminating, dense clusters of tangled filaments, wobbly fields of striated fibers, and impossibly delicate branching structures render the landscape of the brain alive with palpable immediacy. Through faint pencil marks visible beneath the networks of black ink and traces of correction fluid that speckle each image, the drawings exude a genuine struggle for comprehension. 

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Tumor cells of the covering membranes
of the brain
, 1890. Ink and pencil on paper, 6 1/4 × 5 inches. Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid.

Comprehension—and clarity. Indeed, so lucid are Cajal’s drawings that they’re still used in science pedagogy today. Given the wealth of imaging technologies at our disposal—a selection of whose slick products appears in the final section of the show—this might strike one as curious. But then drawings have something no machine can yet simulate: an embodied human agent in active engagement with the world. In this, Cajal’s drawings lay proof to the creative powers of human perception. For while his colleagues had access to the same instruments, each of them seeing the same forms through their lenses, only he was able to perceive what would earn him the Nobel Prize—namely, that neurons are not linked by physical connections, but communicate with each other across tiny gaps between each. The discovery was so consequential that Cajal is now known as the father of modern neuroscience.

How could Cajal perceive what others could not? The answer may well have to do with his absorption in drawing. In its concentrated coordination of hand, eye, and mind, drawing activates the whole of human intelligence—including, crucially, the intelligence of the body—priming the mind to receive insights inaccessible to thought alone. A kind of integrated cognition like no other, it may have granted Cajal access to what he called one’s “divinatory instinct”: an intuitive form of mentation as mysterious as it is unseen. Impenetrable by reason, this strange way of knowing is, in some sense, no less awe-inspiring than the brain. The drawings are charged with it.

Jeff Lichtman, Jean Livet, and Joshua Sanes at Harvard University, Brainbow, 2007. Light micrograph, 26 3/4 × 20 inches. Courtesy Jeff Lichtman.

In today’s search for new epistemologies beyond our various, tired dualisms, Cajal’s life and work provide deep inspiration. As neuroscience continues to confirm the enormous role of the body in our cognitive processes, we might come to see more recognition of non-discursive modes of thinking. We might even come to see more scientists embracing art. As this show makes clear, the beauty of the human brain transcends its material structures; fully integrated with the whole of its embodied capacities, the mind it gives rise to may be capable of more than any of us can yet imagine.


  1. For further discussion of drawing as thinking see: "Lines of Thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to Now," Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, The Brooklyn Rail, November 11, 2017. https://brooklynrail.org/2017/11/artseen/Lines-of-Thought-Drawing-from-Michelangelo-to-now


Taney Roniger

TANY RONIGER is an artist and frequent contributor to Artseen.