Einstein’s brain

Albert Einstein, the 20th century’s best-known scientist, revolutionized the way we think about the universe. This week, he was back in the news–or at least, part of him was.

When Einstein died on April 17, 1955, he left his wishes that an acquaintance perform the autopsy and his body then be cremated. The acquaintance didn’t turn up, however, so the autopsy fell to Dr. Thomas Harvey, 42, the pathologist at Princeton Hospital. Dr. Harvey took it on himself to preserve Einstein’s greatest asset–he cut a hole in Einstein’s cranium and removed the brain. He’s had it ever since, having promised Einstein’s family it would be treated with respect and made available for medical research.

That research has finally taken place, right here in Canada, although it really began in 1993, when Dr. Harvey allowed Britt Anderson, a neurologist at the University of Alabama, to study a three-centimetre sample of Einstein’s cortex. (Dr. Harvey shipped it off in a zip-lock pouch that was temporarily lost in the mail!) Dr. Anderson found that Einstein’s cortex–the part of the brain in which higher thinking occurs–was thinner than usual, but that the brain cells in it were packed together more densely. However, he didn’t have other 40-year-old brains to compare it to, to see if the apparent differences were a function of the way the brain had been preserved. (Dr. Harvey dissected it, encased it in a waxy substance called celloidin and cut it into 240 blocks of about 10 cubic centimetres each.) Dr. Anderson mentioned to Dr. Harvey that Dr. Sandra Witelson, a neuropsychologist at McMaster University, had an excellent collection of normal male and female brains.

Dr. Harvey knew of Dr. Witelson and felt she was “intelligent and able,” and so, in the summer of 1995, he faxed her office a simple message: “Do you want to study the brain of Albert Einstein?” Dr. Witelson, not surprisingly, replied, “Yes.”

Perhaps because of the harrowing experience of almost losing a piece of the brain in the mail, Dr. Harvey decided to deliver the brain to Dr. Witelson himself, driving it north from Titusville, New Jersey, in two jars of alcohol in the trunk of his Dodge. At the border, he told officials he had something to declare. “They didn’t ask to see it,” he says. “They pretty much took my word for it.”

Dr. Witelson, though awed to be holding Einstein’s brain in her hands, quickly got to work. Her results, based on both her first-hand examination of the brain and on the meticulously calibrated photographs Dr. Harvey took shortly after the autopsy, are fascinating.

Based on studies of stroke victims, scientists know that the parietal lobes seem to play a key role in mental ability. Einstein’s parietal lobes, it turns out, were a full centimetre–15 percent–wider than the average width of those in the 91 brains in Dr. Witelson’s collection.

Did Einstein’s larger brain play a role in his genius? Dr. Witelson and many other scientists believe so, and Dr. Witelson’s entire career has been devoted to determining the correlation between brain physiology and mental abilities. Others, such as Michael Gazzaniga, Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, are skeptical. “Male brains are bigger than women’s. Are you going to say that men are smarter? I’m not!” says Dr. Gazzaniga.

Dr. Gazzaniga believes that’s what more important is how brain cells are networked together. As it happens, there’s evidence Einstein had an advantage in that area, too. In most brains, the Sylvian fissure, a groove that runs along both sides of the human brain from front to back, divides the area that deals with mathematical reasoning from the area that deals with visual and spatial connections. But in Einstein’s brain, that division doesn’t exist. That could have allowed neurons from the two areas to network more efficiently. Interestingly, Einstein described his scientific thinking in terms of “clear images…of the visual and muscular type,” and said that words did not seem to play a role.

No one, including Dr. Witelson, claim that the unique features of Einstein’s brain necessarily fully account for his genius. It is, after all, just one brain. But Dr. Witelson’s findings highlight the need for further study of the brains of other gifted individuals in the future.

Nearly 50 years after his death, Einstein’s brain is still pointing the way to new scientific understanding.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1999/06/einsteins-brain/

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