Einstein’s brain

When Albert Einstein died in 1955 he had a reputation for being one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. His aura endures and because of his extraordinary leaps of logic and understanding he has become synonymous with the peak of human intellectual endeavour and accomplishment. It is not surprise then that Einstein’s brain has also been the object of much study to see if we could unlock the secrets of his unique capacities. A few findings have come to light over the last half century but now a new analysis has added a some light to the relative darkness surrounding Einstein’s brain.

When Einstein died at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey, his brain was removed by a pathologist named Thomas Harvey, who preserved, photographed, and measured it. A colleague of Harvey’s cut most of the brain into 240 blocks and mounted them on microscope slides. From time to time, he sent the slides to various researchers, although few insights have resulted. In 1998, Harvey gave the jar to the University Medical Centre of Princeton, where it remains today.

One interesting finding has been that Einstein\’s brain had a parietal lobe that was 15 per cent larger than the average brain’s parietal lobe. It seems no coincidence that this part of the brain helps with three-dimensional and spatial reasoning and mathematical abilities. The parietal lobe was also missing the Sylvian fissure (also known as the lateral sulcus), a divide that separates the parietal lobe into two sections. It is conjectured by some that the lack of the fissure allowed Einstein’s brain cells to communicate faster than the average human’s. It remains to be shown however, how that increase in speed could result in greater understanding.

One analysis found a pronounced knob-like structure in the part of the motor cortex that controls the left hand. In other brains similar “knobs” have been associated with musical ability and this feature could correlate with Einstein having played the violin since childhood. It still though does not explain the unique insight that was Einstein’s.

The new study focused on a large bundle of fibres in the brain that connects the two cerebral hemispheres and allows communication between the left and right sides of the brain. This fibre bundle is called the corpus callosum. Using a new technique that allowed for a higher resolution measurement of the fibre thickness Einstein’s corpus callosum was compared to two sample groups: 15 elderly men and 52 men who were Einstein’s age (26) in 1905. This year was chosen for comparison because it has become known as the Annus Mirabilis (Miracle Year) because it is the year in which Einstein produced some of his most remarkable work. In 1905 Einstein made important discoveries concerning the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and the special theory of relativity. In many ways 1905 was a year that revolutionised humanities thinking about time, space, and energy.

The new technique allowed the researchers to measure how many nerve fibres crossed in the corpus callosum and therefore how connected the two sides of the brain were.

The findings showed that Eintein’s brain had more extensive connections between the two sides of his brain than either the younger or older men. Like all the other “discoveries” about Einstein’s brain, this alone does not explain the magic that was Einstein.

It does not always enhance understanding to reduce things to their component parts. Einstein’s genius after all had a synthesising yet transcendant quality to it. The piquant paradox here is that reducing Einstein’s brain to its elements has shown that part of what made it great was the connection between the elements. In human brains, in human organisms, in human relations, and in human societies…connection is everything.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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