Ramon y Cajal: Father of Neurology and his Vision on Dreams

Today's blog is dedicated to Jordi Borràs, one of the best dream workers in Spain.
A Book review of The Dreams of Santiago Ramon y Cajal by Benjamin Ehrlich Oxford University Press 2017 $37.95  ISBN 9780190619619
By Dutch psychologist Susanne van Doorn


ramon y cajal
Santiago Ramon y Cajal self-portrait 1870



Do you think dreams have a deeper, psychological meaning? Or do you think dreams are the result of the brain activity at night?

The International Association for the Study of Dreams, of which I am a board member, says that a dream can not be interpreted by anyone else but the dreamer. This is a very elegant, sophisticated way to balance between the two opposite views.

What are your experiences? Do you think that dreams are random chatter? Or have you had a dream that changed your life? Let me know in the comments, I would love to hear your take on this.


The nice guy in the picture is Santiago Ramon y Cajal, born in 1852. His father, Justo Ramóny, made his own way to wealth by becoming a doctor. He wanted his son to do the same. In order to teach Santiago about the human body, they went to graveyards to dig up and analyse corpses…

His father did not want to have anything to do with the romantic soul of his son. Santiago had to learn, not play.

ramon y cajal
© Antony Smith – 2014

During his life Santiago made sure he had an outlet for his creative side: he made drawings of his laboratory-findings and he was an excellent photographer, see the self portrait at the top of this article.

If you live in Minneapolis: there is an exhibition about his artwork in the Weisman Art museum until May 21, 2017.

Santiago Ramon y Cajal: the cel as hero

The book consists of two parts. the first part is composed out of 10 chapters that give the reader background information about Cajal, Spain in the beginning the 1900’s, and how Spain became Freudian – oriented.

The first part of this book convinced me that Cajal was an incurable romantic. In his eyes, the cell was a hero. He studies the nerve cell with Golgi technique. Tragically, he and his opponent Golgi had to share the Nobel Prize…


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According to Santiago, the cell was a hero, in the quest for the adventure of life.
“The probing ends of growing fibers are battering rams, and the fateful meeting between two communist neurons, later termed the synapse, he likened to a protoplasmic kiss” (page 7).


ramon y cajal
Purkinje cell by Santiago Ramon y Cajal
1899; Instituto Cajal, Madrid, Spain.



Cajal and Freud were celebrated scholars in the 1900s. Cajal became the father of neurology, while Freud became the father of psychoanalysis.

Cajal did not agree with Freud.  In 1911 Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote about “The Secret of Dreams”, and introduced Freud his ideas to Spain. Six year later, Ortega acquired the rights to publish the translated works of Freud.

Spain started warming up to Freud. Influential artist Dali was a great admirer of Freud. He visited Freud one day and made a fool of himself in his nervousness.
Freud allegedly said about Dali: “That boy looks like a fanatic. Small wonder that they have civil war in Spain if they look like that”.

ramon y cajal
Painting of Freud by Dali
Copyright Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation


Cajal writes to his friend Gregorio Marañón (1887–1960), in relation to Freud’s approach to dreams:

… I consider as collective lies both psychoanalysis and Freud’s theory of dreams; nearly all the findings of the wise Viennese scholar can be explained by individual or collective suggestion. Of this I shall speak if I manage to live long enough to write another book on dreams, in which I summarize thousands of self-observations contradicting Freud’s theory (Durán and Alonso, 1960).

The book about dreams that Cajal refers to in this quote is an article called “Los sueños” in the Revista Cajal de Medicina y Cirugía in 1908.

RAMoN Y CAJAL and dreams

Santiago Ramon y Cajal considered Freud’s way of exploring the brain as unscientific. In his mind, dreams are random chit-chat of brain waves.

In our day and age, exactly the same intellectual battle is going on between Alan Hobson and Mark Solms.

“Hobson argues that dreams are ad hoc frameworks for meaningless signals, whereas Solms uses psychological evidence to argue that dreams are indeed the expressions of wish-fulfilment” (page 50).

RAMoN Y CAJAL AND His Daughter

A very tragic event appears in Ramon y Cajal his dreams: the loss of his daughter.

“I take a walk by the bay (Santander?) and I fall into the water with one of my little daughters in my arms. I fight the waves, I am almost drowning, despite touching the seawall. The nightmare awakens me” (page 90).

One of his children, his daughter Enriqueta, died of the consequences of a bacterial disease. According to is biography (see literature) he stayed in his laboratory while he did not hear, or chose to ignore the cries of his wife who was holding her.


Santiago Ramon y Cajal had a very interesting dynamic in his life and in his work. He wanted to be an artist but became a scientist. He was charmed by hypnosis, but attributed dreams to the neurological activity of the brain.

When he got his Nobel Price in 1906, he had to share it with his opponent Golgi. He used the method of Golgi to make neurons visible. Camillo Golgi proposed that every neuron in the brain is a network on its own: this is called the rectangular theory.

ramon y cajal
Artwork Scott Hilburn


Cajal showed, using the technique of Golgi that nervous tissue, like other tissues, is made of discrete cells.

After winning the big Nobel Price which he had to share with his opponent, Cajal summarised this never ending duality in his life with these words: “What a cruel irony of fate to pair, like Siamese twins, united by the shoulders, scientific adversaries of such contrasting character.”




  • This book will give you  nice overview of the history of neurology and dreams;
  • It is written in a very readable way;
  • You will get to know Santiago Ramon y Cajal as a very romantic soul who had an interesting life;
  • The opposition in his character of being a tender romantic soul as well as a scientists who only looks at facts speaks clearly in his dream about his daughter.
  • The book is given its length of 144 pages rather expensive:
  • I was a little bit disappointed that the dreams of Ramon y Cajal were rather short and that there was no further information available. The first part of the book gives this information, but the dream-part would have been juicier when there had been a certain form of analysis.

Mindfunda verdict:

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Durán, G. and Alonso, F. Cajal Vida y obra 2nd edition (Barcelona: Editorial Cientifico-Medico 1983).



What is Mindfunda about?

My name is Susanne van Doorn, I am a Dutch psychologist, blogger and author. I have been working with psychology, dreams and mythology ever since I finished my study in psychology at Tilburg University. I made this independant site to share insights, and recent scientific articles about the brain, dreams, and mythology for use in your personal life.

This posting is categorised as Brainfunda
articles and relevant information about the brain about how you can use this in your everyday life. Neurology, the brain all the fascinating things we find out in current research.

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Five books to Read on Dreams in the first Three months of 2017

What do I advise you to read on the topic of dreams in the first three months of 2017? I love to read and educate myself. I spent the last couple of days exploring the websites of publishers looking for pearls* that I might review for you. *Pearls are books that have a special edge: they talk about dreams from other perspectives. We all know the “tell me the first thing that comes into your mind” association method when it comes to dreams. I want to go further than that. I want to explore different ways: scientific, neurologic, artistic. Books filled with information that can turn your current world view upside down. From all the books I have previewed here is the list of books I want to read. And I think you will agree with me. The list below is arranged by date of publication, not by preference.

Read tip 1: Aging & Becoming: A Reflective Enquiry

Aging and Becoming. A reflective Journey  by Susan Scott and Susan Schwartz PhD.  January 2017

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In our society youth is idolized. Wrinkles are botoxed away and grey hairs are dyed in any other more youthful colour.
But aging has its merits too. You gain more self-confidence, you have fallen and gotten back up again. “The value of myths, dreams and tales are also referenced as these indicate the enduring trials and tribulations in our contemporary lives.  The authors challenge the view that the older woman has little to offer” (copy-pasted from Amazon site).
I love the way mythology and dreams are intertwined (I have written an excellent course on this subject). And as a woman, I have seen my value increase while growing older. Because I have so much more knowledge, I am able to support others in much more profound ways than I used to be able to when I was young. So I will be very glad to review this book for you on Mindfunda.

This is the review about Aging and becoming, a Reflective Enquiry.

Read tip #2: text as dream

Text as Dream, Instinctual Life in Literature by Rani Drew, $47.99 to be published February 15th, 2017


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Writer Rani Drew  compares Freud’s breakdown of a dream with the process of creating art. I am really fascinated when a dream is compared to a work of art, or a text. I think I am going to learn a lot reading this book, even though I am not a Freudian. I do admire the intuitive nature of the Freudian model of the psyche, where the human mind is conceived to be an iceberg, with treasures hidden beneath the surface.

Read tip #3: Dreams, Neuroscience, and Psychoanalysis

Dreams, Neuroscience, and Psychoanalysis. Mind, Body and the Question of Time, by Keramat Movallali, $52.95 to be published February 2017

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Time in dreams. This is one of the things that fascinates me most of all. I have had dreams that featured time-traveling.  And this book has such a juicy promise: “Dreams, Neuroscience, and Psychoanalysis sets out to give a scientific consistency to the question of time and find out how time determines brain functioning” (copy/pasted from the Amazon site). I just could not resist, I need to know more.

Read Tip #4:The Brain

The Brain: What Everyone Needs To Know® by Gary L. Wenk, to be published February 2017 on kindle for 12.99 Hardcopy March 2017 for 74.00


This book is written in the form of questions: How am I going to live longer? When am I going to die? AND: a whole chapter on dreams! Yes, we love it. “What happens when I am dreaming? What is a lucid dream? A lot of interesting questions.

Read Tip #5: Dreaming and Historical Consciousness in Island Greece

 Dreaming and Historical Consciousness in Island Greece by Charles Steward, to be published March 2017 (a republication)

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A book, written by an Anthropologist of whom the Times Literary Supplement  said when it was published in 2012:  “In his extraordinary Dreaming and Historical Consciousness in Island Greece, Charles Stewart offers a new way of thinking about dreams in their social contexts . . . and Stewart has a gripping story to tell.”
That sounds like an intriguing promise to me. I hope I will be able to get a review copy so I can share my thoughts about this book with you.

If you have any other books about dreams and mythology that are going to be published in 2017, let me know in the comments.


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