Science’s poster boy is a wild-haired old man with piercing eyes. Of course, you know his name. Ever since Einstein’s death, scientists have wondered whether his brain was built for brilliance.

After Einstein died in his sleep in 1955 a pathologist Thomas Harvey performed the autopsy. During the procedure he removed the brain and instead of putting it back in the skull he put it in a glass jar of formaldehyde. His excuse was ‘a sense of duty to science’.

Harvey had no training in neuroscience but kept the jar for decades for ‘scientific study’. He first took dozens of black-and-white photographs of the brain from multiple angles, and then sectioned the brain into 240 blocks from which he prepared histological slides. He never published any research findings, however, after three decades doled out small sections of the brain to few neuroscientists.

An analysis in 1985 at the University of California showed that the brain didn’t have more neurons than a normal brain, but it had more glial (which means glue) cells. At the time scientists believed that glia were simply cellular packaging to support the intricate network of neurons which do the important work in the brain. Glia are now believed to be involved in memory and learning; unlike neurons which communicate with each other by electrical pulses, glia communicate with each other in a secret language of chemicals. Did the abundance of ‘talking’ glia made Einstein smart? We can’t be sure because the research on glia is still not conclusive.

In 1999 neuroscientists at McMaster University in Canada who maintain a ‘brain bank’ for comparative studies of brain structure and function also examined some sample tissues. Their study revealed a distinctive physical characteristic: cerebral cortex, the region of the brain that is involved in mathematical thinking and imagery – two key features of the kind of thinking Einstein did best – was about 15 per cent wider than normal, making it spherical.

However, a 2012 study reveals that Einstein’s brain was not spherical in shape. This study by anthropologist Dean Falk of Florida State University and her two colleagues is based on an analysis of 14 recently discovered photographs taken by Harvey in 1955. The study results show that although the overall size and shape of Einstein’s brain were normal, the prefrontal cortex differs much more dramatically from that of a person of average intelligence. The expanded prefrontal cortex ‘may have provided underpinnings for some of his extraordinary cognitive abilities including his productive use of thought experiments,’ the researchers say.

Other studies have shown that the genius’s brain weighed 1.23-kilograms. Einstein was 76 when he died. As the fresh brain weight of a 76-year-old male averages about 9 per cent less than its weight in adolescence, the age-corrected weight of Einstein’s brain would be 1352 grams. The average human adult brain weighs about 1400 grams. Einstein’s brain had a normal weight, but its neurons were tightly packed which might have allowed for more interconnections resulting in faster mental processing.

It would be interesting to compare Einstein’s brain with preserved brain of Carl Friedrich Gauss (the great German mathematician who can be ranked only with Archimedes and Newton, ‘and it is not for ordinary mortals to attempt to range them in order of merit,’ warns E.T. Bell, the famous historian of mathematics). When Gauss died in 1855, a Dr Rudolph Wagner compared his brain with the brain of an ordinary day labourer and found it to be equal in all respects.

Was Einstein’s brain built for brilliance or his thinking about the universe changed his brain? We still do not know what exactly makes someone genius, but we do know that the brain’s overall size and weight are not related to intelligence.  

© Surendra Verma 2013

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