Einstein’s brain, preserved during autopsy, has been studied for decades. Some say it’s time to give it a rest.
The brain was Albert Einstein’s. The man was Thomas Harvey, a pathologist who in 1955 removed, photographed and preserved the great physicist’s brain during autopsy. In the decades since, the brain has enjoyed a certain celebrity. In the ’80s, Harvey gave away slices to the curious, keeping the rest in a pair of glass cookie jars. (These bizarre transactions appear in the 1994 documentary Relics: Einstein’s Brain.) In the late ’90s, he carried it across the country in a Tupperware container to offer it to Einstein’s granddaughter, who chose not to keep it. Finally, he gave it back to Princeton Hospital, where he performed the autopsy decades before.
But some experts think it’s all been a fool’s errand — that the haphazard state of the specimen, wishful thinking by its explorers and our murky understanding of the mind-brain link render these conclusions questionable.
The hope that studying a postmortem brain will reveal secrets about its owner’s mind is centuries old. The brains of Vladimir Lenin, Walt Whitman and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss were among the many removed for study. Nineteenth-century scientists fell into bitter debate as to whether intelligence lay in anatomy or whether a vital force — or even an immortal soul — was responsible for thoughts.
A philosophical divide persists to this day. Some researchers suggest this or that region of the brain corresponds to a mental faculty; others say it amounts to little more than phrenology, a 19th-century pseudoscience that claimed bumps on the skull could explain personality. The epithet dogs even some functional MRI studies, which seek to link specific thought processes to corresponding regions of the brain by measuring moment-to-moment differences in blood flow.
Those who would explore Einstein’s brain are well aware they’re treading potentially controversial ground. Nevertheless, they believe they’re on to something. In 1985, neuroscientist Marian Diamond of the University of California, Berkeley, reported the Einstein brain had extra cells called glia. These cells support the “thinking” neurons in the left parietal lobe, an area above and behind the left ear involved in spatial relations and mathematics. She speculated that this “might reflect the enhanced use of this tissue in the expression of his unusual conceptual powers.” Seven years later, a researcher in Osaka, Japan, suggested a link between that higher glia-to-neurons ratio and Einstein’s purported dyslexia.
From there it gets weirder. Part of the area controlling speech, called the Broca’s area, was unusually convoluted, and areas controlling the facial muscles around the mouth were enlarged (a finding reminiscent of the photo of Einstein sticking out his tongue). Falk noted extra convolutions in the frontal lobes, which are believed to be involved in thought experiments. The right superior parietal lobe, which receives visual and spatial information, was large, too. Co-author Frederick Lepore wonders if the parietal lobes were the locus of Einstein’s ability to envision space-time curvature.
“But there’s no way you could prove that, and we don’t. We just say it’s interesting,” Lepore says. “The brain is different from the run-of-the-mill human brain, and it just happens to be that this guy was arguably the genius of our epoch.”
Exciting stuff, the researchers suggest. Stuff and nonsense, says Pace University psychology professor Terence Hines.
“If you start out with the preconception of ‘This is the brain of somebody who’s really smart,’ you’re going to be able to find something that confirms your bias,” says Hines. Sloppy thinking pervades the Einstein’s-brain literature, he says.
Hines is not alone in his skepticism. Psychiatrist Lena Palaniyappan of the University of Nottingham sounds a note of caution about comparing different brains’ convolutions. If you’re analyzing brains from two different species, more convolutions do mean more smarts. But, he notes, no one has demonstrated such a relationship when comparing human brains. So it’s not clear what reports of extra convolutions in the Einstein brain really amount to.
Ann McKee, the Boston University neuropathologist who sounded the alarm about chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players who have suffered concussions, says she’s wary of studies purporting to ascribe mental function to structure alone.
That’s because structure tells only part of the story. Neural impulses race all over the brain, tying together both distant and adjacent structures moment by moment. Not taking those relationships between brain areas into account would be like trying to understand Manhattan’s commerce by studying buildings but not traffic patterns.
These neural relationships are “so evanescent,” McKee says, “and it’s something that’s only captured by studies of function, which are not possible from a postmortem exam.”