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Einstein’s Brain: New Insights into the Roots of Genius

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Ever since his death in 1955, scientists have asked what features of Einstein’s brain contributed to his extraordinary insights into physical laws.

Research on the anatomy of Einsteins’ genius was stymied because many of the post-mortem images and slides of tissue from the subsequently dissected organ were unavailable to researchers. The story is complex and the fate of Einstein’s brain, in fact, has furnished sufficient anecdotal raw material to produce a number of popular books.

In addition to the human drama, scientists have in recent years  identified a few special attributes. The size and structure of Einstein’s parietal lobes, involved with processing spatial relationships and numbers, seemed tied to his mathematical ability.

Now a new study in Brain, based on the most comprehensive  collection of post-mortem images compiled to date, shows that Einstein’s cerebral cortex, responsible for higher-level mental processes, differs much more dramatically than previously thought from that of your Everyman of average intelligence. The paper, in fact, publishes for the first time the “road map” to the father of relativity’s brain, photographs that image 240 blocks of dissected tissue from the autopsy performed at the University of Pennsylvania by Thomas Harvey.

An edited interview follows with noted anthropologist and lead researcher Dean Falk of Florida State University.

What did you find in the study?

Although Einstein’s brain was of a normal size and it’s overall lopsided shape was normal for a right-handed male, the pattern of convolutions on the outside surface of the cerebral cortex was very complex in specific regions of different lobes of the brain.

Why are these convolutions important?

The cerebral cortex, the  outside part of the brain, is really important because it’s where we humans do our higher conscious thinking. It’s the most advanced region of the brain. As our ancestors’ brains increased in size, there was a tendency for more convolutions to appear in the cortex. The convolutions are a way of increasing volume in the brain in a closed container like the skull.  The convolutions are also important because they may be indicative of the extent of connections beneath the brain’s surface. In some cases, the grooves that delimit the convolutions , the sulci, may even define a specific functional area.

Did the particular convolutions in Einstein’s brain give any clues as to what his special cognitive gifts might have been?

We compared his brain to descriptions in the literature of the cerebral cortex of  85 normal brains. At times we were able to make reasoned speculations. For instance, Einstein had extraordinary prefrontal cortices, right behind the forehead, which revealed an intricate pattern of convolutions.

We know from comparative studies in primates that this part of the brain became highly specialized during hominin evolution. We also know that in humans that this area functions in higher cognition that entails working memory, making plans, bringing plans to fruition, worrying, thinking about the future and imagining scenarios. It is an extraordinarily evolved part of the brain that is related to connections between neurons underneath the surface of the brain. We’re hypothesizing that what we’re seeing in Einstein’s brain is a lot of complexity in these connections.

Why has it taken over 50 years to get to this point?

There’s only been a handful of studies and there were only a few photographs included in those studies. I knew there should have been lots of other photographs, but I couldn’t get my hands on them. I tried, but until recently doors slammed shut. So it was very frustrating. What had happened was that after the brain was harvested, slides and photographs were given out to a few scientists but many were for all practical purposes lost. In fact, much of the material is still unaccounted for.

Fred Lepore [of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School] decided to try to find the missing photographs, which led him to the family of the pathologist [Harvey] who harvested the brain. As it turned out, the family had a treasure trove of material, which they have generously donated to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. This fulfills a goal of Harvey himself as well as the wishes of the Einstein family.

Haven’t there been previous studies looking at Einstein’s brain and finding features that looked interesting?

Other studies looked at very limited parts of the cerebral cortex and found some features that were remarkable. What we’ve done is look at the entire cerebral cortex and identify features that are extraordinary in numerous parts of the brain. For example one of our findings was that segments of the parietal lobes were highly asymmetrical. Sandra Witelson’s earlier study of Einstein’s brain  correctly noted that parietal lobes are important for mathematical and visuospatial abilities, which has since been confirmed in functional imaging studies.

Einstein’s parietal lobe asymmetries are striking. I tried to find something in the  literature that could explain the  great size of the right superior parietal lobule [a segment of the parietal lobe] and illuminate what it does differently than its left counterpart. Although there are a few suggestive reports, I don’t think the literature is there yet. I’d like to know about the different functions of this region on the two sides of the brain in normal people. It may be that the striking parietal lobe asymmetries in Einstein’s brain are related to his extraordinary mathematical and visuospatial thinking, as Witelson [at McMaster University] and her colleagues suggested.

You’re a leading anthropologist who has done a lot of noted work on Hobbit fossils. What got you interested in Einstein’s brain?

I’m interested in hominin brain evolution so I’m stuck with the external cerebral cortex because you get fossil evidence for that, but nothing internal. You can’t do research on hominin brain evolution without studying the cerebral cortices of living primates and people.  I became interested in Einstein’s cerebral cortex because published studies from the functional brain imaging literature suggested to me that a particular bump in Einstein’s right frontal lobe was related to his intensive musical training on the violin when he was a child.

That got me very interested in Einstein’s brain and wanting to see the rest of it. Once we finally obtained the missing photographs, I realized that we could see and, therefore, describe the entire cerebral cortex, which is what this paper is about. It took a long time to identify all of the grooves and convolutions because I had to visually rotate between different views of Einstein’s brain to make sure that my identifications were consistent from view to view. Some people are gifted in visuospatial rotations but I am not, so it was hard work.

Were there other things that were also unusual?

One of the most interesting things about Einstein’s brain has to do with his sensory and motor cortices. We found an unusual region lower down in the motor cortex that processes information from the face and tongue and laryngeal apparatus. The motor face area in Einstein’s left hemisphere was extraordinarily expanded into a big rectangular patch that I’ve not seen in any other brain. I am not sure how to interpret this. In a famous quotation, Einstein wrote that his thinking entailed an association of images and ‘feelings’, and that, for him, the elements of thought were, not only visual, but also ‘muscular’ What does that mean? I don’t know, but in light of what we found in the motor cortex it’s a very interesting quotation.

Do you think this has anything to do with that famous photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out?

I’ve been asked that four times in the last three days. The first time the question caught me by surprise and I said I thought it was just a coincidence. Then I got to thinking about it and went to a mirror to see whether I could get my tongue out as far as Einstein had, and I came pretty close. So I think that wonderful photograph was probably Einstein just being spontaneous and impetuous.

What are next steps in your research?

It took months of intensive study to describe Einstein’s cerebral cortex. I was staring at the ceiling at night and seeing sulcal patterns. My hope is that others will find our description of Einstein’s external brain useful when they study the newly emerged [tissue] slides and when they look at brains from other people, including geniuses.  Right now, I have fossil projects waiting that I want to get back to.

 

Image Source: Ferdinand Schmutzer

About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. naya8 11:41 am 11/16/2012

    This is the article I have wated for it so long. I am convinced that we humans differ from one another by the micro-structure of our brains.I am so pleased that eventually this article will contribute for establishing a new era of searching after differences in corical cortex and shed light on our evolutionary behavior. I suppose that not only genius abilities are connected to brain micro-structure but also our behavior too.It’s quite plausible that this micro-structure is a genetic pattern, the conclusion is that our brain abilities are all genetic. Good management or successful interacting with environment depends on the brain micro-structure quality.

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  2. 2. AliBlue2412 1:38 pm 11/16/2012

    Very interesting! Here is another interesting article talking about How Geniuses Work: http://people.howstuffworks.com/genius1.htm

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  3. 3. elderlybloke 5:35 pm 11/16/2012

    I read that Einstein was asked by a reporter ” Can you do something for us”at some interview and he responded with the famous (but irrelevant) tongue protuding event.

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  4. 4. Y V Chawla 12:21 am 11/17/2012

    One’s capacity to absorb psychological discomfort-any unpleasantness without any explanation is the release of energy, power, intelligence within one. And apart from immediate physical danger, all discomforts are psychological discomforts.
    https://sites.google.com/site/yvchawla/fusion-2

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  5. 5. ek223 2:14 pm 11/17/2012

    Meh leave his brain alone.
    Einstein was a genius no doubt, but to attribute it to this is a bit far fetched.
    After all, for example, Einstein was a good mathematician but by no means great.

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  6. 6. turtle2258 3:25 pm 11/17/2012

    What does this article have to do with being a great mathamatician, especially, in the case of Einstein wasn’t his goal. All of your and my and his behavior is attributed to our genes(brains), environmental gains and pains and weather we had enough “fire and rain” – rymes – in our lives. Open your mind if you like or just fly a kite. I see the article as “out-of-sight”. Is that all right? It ain’t Albert’s fault that he was “abnormal” (as the article ralates to more normal brains). He did the best he could and we should too. Even if no one appresheates it for 10, 50 or 100+ years. Either way, I’m having a pretty good day. I’m not crazy either, just hungry.

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  7. 7. Astra5 3:51 pm 11/17/2012

    It was long ago suggested that he had Asperger`s syndrome, how many so called `abnormal` brains was it compared to?

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  8. 8. ek223 10:19 pm 11/17/2012

    Ah turtle what does mathematics have to do with physics?
    What is Einstein’s supposed genius in the area of? Art?
    What does the article allude to in specific reference to those areas in the brain responsible for this type of thinking, and how does that play into these complex neural patterns ?
    Here’s a hint: “It may be that the striking parietal lobe asymmetries in Einstein’s brain are related to his extraordinary mathematical and visuospatial thinking, as Witelson [at McMaster University] and her colleagues suggested.”
    People have been looking for umpteen reasons why Einstein was great, often times seeing and reading into what they wanted to support their preconceived notion that his brain was more “special” than yours or mine.
    Ponder these questions and comments and try not to be so hostile towards others next time. :)
    And if you would like to read something truly fascinating, read about the recent discovery of the ability to communicate with a certain percentage of what were previously thought brain dead people.

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  9. 9. syzygyygyzys 11:40 pm 11/17/2012

    Thanks for collecting and organizing information that may have otherwise been lost.

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  10. 10. stargene 2:34 am 11/18/2012

    An interesting line of research, hopefully leading to
    a better understanding of the rich capacities of the
    human brain connectome, and possibly even a window on
    Einstein’s superlative genius. Some additional points
    that have accumulated over the years about Einstein’s
    brain (references are on the NET, eg: wikipedia, etc,):

    1) He possessed an unusually thick corpus callosum for
    a male, which at least suggests that the overall traffic,
    highways and byways connecting his left and right
    hemispheres were extremely ‘high gain’, capable of
    carrying a high information load.

    2) There was an unusually high ratio of glial cells to
    neurons. The probable meaning of this is unclear, except
    that now we know that glial cells are dynamic and active
    in the neural signaling scheme, and not just passive
    structural tissue.

    3) His brain also had an unusually rich blood supply.
    Whether
    this is also true of great thinker/creators, I don’t
    know.

    4) A specific sulcus (whose name escapes me) was missing,
    suggesting that the thus conjoined lobes were possibly
    more efficient and fruitful in their tasks.

    Abraham Pais, the theoretical physicist who knew Einstein
    well (and who wrote the beautiful Einstein biography “Subtle
    is the Lord…”) said that of all physicists of his day (all
    time?), Einstein had the most powerful capacity to locate
    the key ‘invariant’ in a physical mystery; i.e.: a crucial
    property that remains unchanged in pertinent changes of
    coordinate systems. He added that in this, Einstein achieved
    a transcendence in science approaching the highest form of
    art. It seems likely that at least some subtle, and not so
    subtle, anatomical surprises were responsible for some of
    the old gentleman’s genius.

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  11. 11. Na g n o s t ic 6:01 am 11/18/2012

    Methinks Einstein’s brain is not remarkably different from many other brains. I do suspect a person knowledgeable of Einstein’s genius might see confirmation of that knowledge when studying Einstein’s brain.

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  12. 12. m 6:26 am 11/18/2012

    Personally i attribute his “powers” to the fact he had a different set of equations governing how his brain responded to inputs.

    He read “constantly”, his intuition was equivalent of the deep thought found in a master chessman.

    Most importantly id like to know how much he ate on a daily basis. There must be people alive today still that can answer simple questions like did he snack, how much energy did he need for his brain… It would answer an energy question/efficiency question lurking in my brain.

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  13. 13. m 6:27 am 11/18/2012

    Most assuredly his genome should be mapped IMMEDIATELY and genes extracted and implanted into willing participants children.

    Going to far..hmmm i dont believe so.

    Link to this
  14. 14. jtdwyer 7:37 am 11/18/2012

    As Dean Falk says:
    “… particular bump in Einstein’s right frontal lobe was related to his intensive musical training on the violin when he was a child.”

    He was reported to be a gifted and practiced violinist as an adult.

    As I understand, there is research indicating that those with childhood musical training do exhibit characteristic brain physiological features – attributed to the effects of musical training. Conversely, we attribute specific extraordinary intellectual capabilities to physical features such as surface convolutions in certain regions of the brain. Has causation actually been established for ‘giftedness’? Perhaps the convolutions, etc., are the products of a lifetime of very ‘deep thinking’ about very difficult problems and very complex subjects.

    I suspect there are some physical features whose presence may indicate some inherent special capabilities, while others are the product of special usage. Have any studies of gifted children found extraordinary surface convolutions, for example (assuming that they can now be detected without autopsy)? Such studies would be necessary to properly establish cause and effect…

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  15. 15. alan6302 9:37 am 11/18/2012

    Tesla was a mental giant. Unfortunately, his work interfered with the elite.

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  16. 16. alan6302 11:52 am 11/18/2012

    Einstein suffered from insufficient fluorinated water as a child

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  17. 17. jtdwyer 8:52 pm 11/18/2012

    Newton also suffered from “insufficient ‘fluorinated’ [fluoridated] water as a child” – what a coincidence!

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  18. 18. RSW 7:11 pm 11/19/2012

    Interesting findings, but difficult to know what they mean. It would be nice if Einstein’s brain could be compared with the brains of other great scientists or even philosophers. Would there be similarities or differences? If differences, how could we interpret the reasons for them? How about also comparing his brain with the brains of great artists or writers?

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  19. 19. ToNYC 8:55 am 11/20/2012

    I believe that the brain remaps and reconfigures itself as much and likely more than an athlete develops their below-the-neck physical-force muscles. The point here being that without a proper intelligent environment, Einstein-like brains are lost in development more profoundly than photos of any “harvested” brains. Nature blesses environments that man feels compelled to dominate until the ‘truce’ that makes it free again. The World will never be over-populated by intelligent people.

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  20. 20. Didonai 1:31 pm 11/22/2012

    Did anyone save his penis? It could have significant socio-political value depending on the scientific focus rubbed against its visual value to certain gullible audiences. Any number of scientific specialties might find incidental value by association with another feature of genius “greatness”… surely?

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  21. 21. Didonai 1:33 pm 11/22/2012

    ANY piece of tissue from a cadaver holds awesome significance in terms of its “unique” features since no two meat samples are the same. This article has only served to raise my bile and feed my disdain for pseudo-science posed under cover of objective reportage to high profile information rags like Scientific American. Surely a publication with the history of SA could come up with a better piece to annoy faithful readers?

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  22. 22. Mohammad Shafiq KhaN 8:30 am 12/1/2012

    This is straight & simple that Einstein has been mathematically, theoretically, experimentally proved to be great trickster in a published scientific research article titled ‘Experimental & Theoretical Evidences of Fallacy of Space-time Concept and Actual State of Existence of the Physical Universe (www.indjst.org; March2012) available on the linkhttp://www.indjst.org/archive/mar-2012/1-mar%20khan.html.
    These being findings of scientific research article published in peer-reviewed journal so no Tom, Dick & Harry can reject or question the findings in the published article for which the well known & accepted scientific proceadure is publication of the valid rebuttal article in peer-reviewed journals. Till that time Einstein’s brian is not to be considered as the brian of genius ever but that of the greatest trickster.

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  23. 23. icon1 7:48 pm 01/2/2013

    to find book go to http://www.thefinaltheory.com/

    or find a free one on pdf some whare on the net.

    Link to this

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