A New Look At Einstein’s Brain May Answer Why He Was So Smart

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Thanks to work of pathologist Thomas Harvey to preserve Albert Eisntein's brain decades ago, we can continue to busy ourselves today with trying to figure out what made Albert Einstein so smart. Knowing the world would want to scrutinize the brain of one of the most brilliant persons to ever live, Harvey took photographs of the brain then cut it into tissue slices which he mounted onto slides and distributed to some of the world’s most prominent neuropathologists who hoped to find an anatomical clue as to how Einstein achieved his startling genius.

The initial analyses didn’t turn up much, except for the fact that Einstein’s brain, counterintuitively, was actually smaller than average. And early tissue studies showed the normal hallmarks of aging, biomarkers that were expected for someone who lived to the age of 76. So Harvey put the brain fragments in a formalin-filled jar, stuck the jar inside a cider box and kept the box under a beer cooler in his office.

The fabled brain was pulled out decades later, when, in 1985 a study showed that two parts of Einstein’s brain contained higher amounts of glia, the cells that surround and support neurons. And another study published in the nineties concluded that a groove was missing in one part of the cortex. What was interesting was the area missing the groove is thought to process visuo-spacial information and be important for mathematical skills. The scientists speculated that the missing groove might have enhanced neuronal connections, partially explaining why Einstein’s visuo-spatial and mathematical skills were mindbogglingly enhanced.

Is the key to Einstein's genius in the folds and grooves of his brain, or did he just do more with what he had?

Now more scientists are revisiting the six decades long curiosity. Dean Falk and her fellow anthropologists at Florida State University in Tallahassee analyzed 14 of Harvey’s original photographs that had only recently been found. Some of the photographs were taken at angles not seen in photos previously studied, offering new views of Einstein’s brain. They compared his brain anatomy to that of 85 brains which had been previously described in two other studies. They found that Einstein’s prefrontal cortex was “highly convoluted” compared to the average amount of convolutions observed in the other brains. The prefrontal cortex is important in higher level, abstract thought. It’s possible that the increased number of folds and fissures in Einstein’s prefrontal cortex contributed to his ability to carry out his famous thought experiments, such as imagining himself traveling alongside a beam of light.

The photos also showed a part of Einstein’s right somatosensory cortex was enlarged. The area, which processes sensory information from the left hand, is thought to have overdeveloped due to his extensive violin playing.

Humans, the most intelligent species on the planet, owe their acumen to the evolutionary enlargement of the brain as well as the coincident reorganization of the brain’s connections occurring over time. Regarding intelligence, the most important reorganization is generally accepted to be the increased specialization of the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for carrying out higher brain functions. One has to wonder, though, about the true power of nature over nurture. Does the secret to Einstein’s genius really lie in the folds and fissures of his brain? Did his extra-specialized prefrontal cortex really give us the special theory of relativity? Currently we cannot definitively answer these questions, but it’s certainly fun to try.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 12 Responses

  • Roaidz November 29, 2012 on 9:45 pm

    Of course brain sizes didn’t tell us
    sure capabilities. Past experiements
    shows that small brains surpasses
    larger brains.

  • Robert Schreib December 2, 2012 on 9:32 pm

    ?? Did anyone ever do MRI scans on the brains of living top mathematicians to see if their cerebral farmations were like Einstein’s?

  • Andrew Atkin December 9, 2012 on 2:09 pm

    But was Einstein a genius? I doubt it. I think he’s the result of an over-concentrated focus into a highly narrow zone, leading to an eccentric development. A semi idiot-savant? He may have even been below normal intelligence in real, absolute terms.

    I don’t believe in genius because we are all nearly identical, genetically, though we definitely have different collections of strengths and weaknesses. But the “superman” picture is nonsense.

    In large part I think Einstein was just the guy ‘who bothered’. Others, many maybe more intelligent, just didn’t care nearly as much or care in his particular way. I think his development is more unique than superman…but indeed, ‘unique development’ is probably the essence of so-called genius. (school standardises human development, and in my view likewise kills “genius”).

  • SA23 January 14, 2013 on 1:21 am

    This kind of study is problematic because N = 1. We can’t say with any certainty that the convolutions or the violin playing “caused” or are representative of his genius. Nassim Taleb calls into question these simplistic notions of causality in The Black Swan; the brain and the aggregate total of Einstein’s genomic and environmental variables constitute two interlocking COMPLEX SYSTEMS. Predictability, statistical analysis and causative relationships are hard to sketch with N = 10 x 10^6, much less N=1. Just accept the man’s genius, read his writings and move on. The bastard was wrong about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle anyway… “God does not play dice with the universe.” He said. Worship no man, for they are all imperfect.

    • SA23 SA23 January 14, 2013 on 1:23 am

      @ Andrew: There is certainly a huge variation in intelligence, or what psychometricians call “g”. And it’s quite static and heritable. Einstein was definitely a genius. But he also acknowledged that his truly Ubermench quality was CURIOSITY.

      • Summer Time SA23 March 31, 2013 on 11:28 am

        @SA23 pff pfff “psychometry” is FAR from being a science. Period. The rest is ideology and nonsense. It has not been proven “intelligence” was either static or heritable (static… what a name for the most versatile organ in the human body: let a child in a box an entire life, and yes in this case it is static).

        Kind of bullshit of the 80s or even worse of the 30s… so old, so simplistic, so “oh-I’m-sure-life-is-like-that”. Ignorant.

    • Nate Mullinax SA23 April 16, 2013 on 5:29 pm