“Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.” – Psychologist William James, 1890
Since the beginnings of the universe many billions of years ago atoms have been coalescing into larger and more complex groups of atoms called molecules. The innate drive in nature toward ever-increasing order, called syntropy, has defied chaos and continues to cause matter to become more and more complex. Over billions of years molecules have become functionally more intricate, forming protein molecules that shape-shifted into molecules with different functions – even self-replication. Long slender threads of nucleotide RNAs and DNAs, adept at making more of themselves, evolved and continue to evolve. They too, made more of themselves. Did these first atoms and molecules have purpose – not only to survive but to grow more complex and adapt?
Over more billions of years miniscule molecular “life forms” became increasingly diverse, coalescing and integrating, forming protective barriers around themselves to better stabilize and sustain their internal environments. These first cells established mechanisms of replication, too. Banding together, cells formed multi-cellular organismswith cell-to-cell communication in order to constantly adapt to their external environments and learn from events. Organisms divided their labors into tissues andorgan systems. Organisms grew larger and larger, into every shape, size, and environment. With periodic cataclysms came mass extinctions.
Only in the last blink of the Earth’s eye came man. Like the first cells, man had evolved to respond to and control his environment. The ever-adapting human brain represents the pinnacle of billions of years of life’s drive toward order, natural selection, consciousness, the ability to learn from past experiences, find solutions, and create the future. The brain also gives us faith, hope, and wonder.
Still Portrait of a Neuron
Not untill 1894 and with the aid of a microscope, however, was the human mind able to accurately contemplate even part of the cellular structure of its brain. Over many decades of painstaking microscopy, the Spanish neuroanatomist, Ramon y Cajal, compiled the first portraits of brian cells, their intricate arborizations, and their layered organizations.
Cajal proposed a “Neuronal Theory” that explained what he saw: the brain as a finite multitude of individual cells called “neurons.” Cajal described this organization with precise illustrations of cell bodies, axons, dendritic connections, and exact locations of various types of neurons. His Neuronal Theory – that specific types of neurons remain connected and hard-wired for adult life – remained hard-wired in neuroscience as well, prevailing as central dogma for nearly 100 years.