Neurologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal Kept A Dream Journal To Spite Sigmund Freud

Have you ever worked with somebody who just rubbed you the wrong way? You'd never say anything about it in person, but everything they do just ticks you off. Maybe it's their sense of humor, or the way they blow their nose, or their habit of evangelizing fad diets to any and all in earshot. You're not alone.

In the early 20th century, Dr. Santiago Ramón y Cajal (AKA "the father of neuroscience") was losing it over this obnoxious guy Sigmund — as in, Sigmund Freud. Although the fathers of their respective fields enjoyed a reasonably cordial working relationship, Cajal was so riled up by Freud's theories that he secretly devoted the last 16 years of his life to disproving them.

A Dream Of Academic Revenge

So what was Santiago's beef with Sigmund? It all came down to dreams. In the early 1900s, Freud's theory that dreams were an expression of repressed desires was all the rage. But to Cajal, that sort of semi-mythical description was practically heresy. After all, Cajal was the man who discovered the neuron, and predicted the existence of synapses. To him, dreams had to have an essentially anatomical explanation—the idea that they arose from such unquantifiable concepts as emotions and desires simply would not stand.

As Cajal once wrote in a letter to a friend, "Except in extremely rare cases it is impossible to verify the doctrine of the surly and somewhat egotistical Viennese author, who has always seemed more preoccupied with founding a sensational theory than with the desire to austerely serve the cause of scientific theory." In other words, Freud's theory was all pudding, no proof.

That's why Cajal started keeping a dream journal of his own. The idea was that his dreams wouldn't be able to be connected to any desires. Instead, Cajal suspected, they'd map on to experiences from his recent or distant past, confirming his own theory that dreams were caused by the random firing of neurons as they reprocessed the dreamer's waking life. Though he never saw fit to publish his findings before his death in 1934, Cajal's dream journal today serves as a strangely intimate portrait of a scientist who was known for being analytical even to a fault.

The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal By: Benjamin Ehrlich

Warm Beds, Cold Logic, Burning Passion

One of Cajal's recurring dreams was similar to one you've probably had as well. "I attend a diplomatic soiree and as I am leaving my pants fall down." In the margins he scrawled this casually sarcastic note—"Is it desire?" But other dreams did seem to have their basis in his emotional state. One of his daughters died at six years old, lending a special resonance to a nightmare he had 30 years later of drowning in the ocean with a young girl in his arms. At other times, the reader can almost feel Cajal's sputtering anger. In a Sisyphean dream about proofreading a text that keeps changing, he demands each inconsistency be explained. What desire is reflected by the dream's setting in Jaca? Why was the book published by Pueyo's Press? He curtly throws down the gauntlet: "This cannot be explained by Freud."

As it turns out, history has landed on Cajal's side. Freudian psychology is largely discredited and most modern professionals prefer the analytical, quantifiable model based on anatomy. So it's maybe a bit more than a little ironic that Freud would be the first name that comes to mind when most people think of the field. We have a feeling that the grudge would still be burning if the two were still alive today. The question is, would Cajal be dreaming of Freud's comeuppance?

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Written by Curiosity Staff July 10, 2017

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