Great Minds

How To Learn Like Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was a Spanish pathologist and one of the founding fathers of modern neuroscience. He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906 and his work forms the basis for our current understanding of the human brain. This post will give you three tips you can take away from Ramón y Cajal to apply to your own learning and life.
Nasos Papadopoulos
“As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain will also be a mystery.”

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was a Spanish pathologist and one of the founding fathers of modern neuroscience.

He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906 for his pioneering research on the structure of the nervous system and his work forms the basis for our current understanding of the human brain. 

Childhood: A Born Troublemaker with Multiple Interests

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born on 1 May 1852 in the small town of Petilla de Aragón in the Navarre region of Northern Spain.

The son of Justo Ramón a physician and anatomy teacher, and his mother Antonia Cajal, Santiago was a little troublemaker from an early age!

He was thrown out of several schools because of his rebellious behaviour and was put in prison at the age of 11 for destroying his neighbour’s garden gate with a homemade cannon.

Young Santiago was also a keen artist and gymnast but his father didn’t encourage these talents and apprenticed him to a barber and a shoemaker to try and drive some discipline into the boy.

Education: A Medical Maverick and Bone Sketcher

In the summer of 1868 when Santiago was 17, his father made an effort to get his son interested in a medical career by taking him to graveyards to use human remains for anatomical study!

Surprisingly, Justo’s unconventional tactics worked – and young Santiago became fascinated by the process of sketching bones. As a result, he enrolled to study medicine at the University of Zaragoza.

During his university years, Ramón y Cajal applied himself. He made great progress during his degree and after graduating aged 21 in 1873, he passed a competitive exam to win a place as a medical doctor in the Spanish Army.

After a one year expedition to Cuba, poor Santiago contracted malaria and tuberculosis, and he returned to Spain to the Panticosa spa town to recover from his illness.

Work: Neural Networks and Nobel Prizes

After his recovery, Ramón y Cajal earned his doctorate from the University of Madrid and worked at the University of Zaragoza, until he became an anatomy Professor at the University of Valencia in 1883.

He also met and married his wife Silveria during this period, with whom he had a total of seven children!

In 1887, Ramón y Cajal moved to the University of Madrid, where he began his ground-breaking work on the central nervous system that would shape the field of modern neuroscience.

Cajal found evidence of what we know call “the neuron doctrine” the idea that the nervous system is built up of cells rather than a continuous network.

He won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his work and received honorary doctorates from all over the world, including one from the University of Cambridge.

Ramón y Cajal passed away in 1934 in Madrid at the age of 82 and continued to work even on his deathbed. 

3 Things You Can Learn from Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Ramón y Cajal is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern neuroscience and published more than 100 scientific works and articles in Spanish, French and German.

He also produced hundreds of beautiful, intricate drawings which illustrate the structure of the brain are still used for educational purposes today!

Here are 3 things you can learn from Santiago to improve your learning and life:

1) You're the Master of Your Own Brain…So Start Acting Like It

“Every man if he so desires becomes sculptor of his own brain.”


Ramón y Cajal's work ultimately led to the insight that our brains are malleable and can change even in adulthood.

And he was certainly a believer that we could learn new things and change our behaviour, as a lifelong learner himself.

Genetics certainly play a role determining our abilities in life but you’ll never really be able to know just how much. So you may as well act like you can change your brain…because if you do, you just might!

2) Own Your Mistakes…And You’ll Actually Learn From Them 

“The worst part is not in making a mistake but in trying to justify it, instead of using it as a heaven-sent warning of our ignorance.”


Ramon y Cajal certainly made plenty of mistakes over the course of his long career – and as a scientist that is effectively what he did for a living!

But rather than blaming mistakes on his colleagues, Ramon y Cajal made sure he took full responsibility for them and returned to work hungrier than before whenever he made one.

It’s easy to blame others for your mistakes or put them down to factors outside of your control – but in order to really learn from them you need to own them properly. And when you do, the lessons will actually stick!

3) Stop Arguing with People who Won’t Change their Minds...And Keep Moving Forward

“It is idle to dispute with old men. Their opinions, like their cranial sutures, are ossified.”

Ramon y Cajal was a fiery personality and his work on the neuron doctrine was also highly controversial as it contradicted conventional wisdom at the time.

Although he was heavily criticised for his work, Cajal didn’t keep trying to convince the non-believers  - he knew he was onto something and kept going!

It’s easy to spend a lot of time and energy trying to convince people you’re right – but if they’re “old” in the sense that they no longer want to learn or consider new points of view, then don’t worry about them!

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