New Report Claims Differences in Einstein’s Brain

October 8th, 2013
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A new study has been published and is making the rounds in the media, claiming to have unlocked the secrets to Einstein’s genius based on the structure of the corpus callosum of his brain.

Via International Science Times:

Einstein’s Brain: ‘Unusually Well-Connected’ Hemispheres Led To His Genius, Study Suggests
Albert Einstein’s brain had unusually well-connected left and right hemispheres, according to a study published in the journal Brain. The study, led by Weiwei Men of East China Normal University’s Department of Physics, suggests that this connectivity in Einstein’s brain may have contributed to his genius. Men and his team drew this conclusion from detailing Einstein’s corpus callosum, the bundle of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres, the first time such a analysis has been done on Einstein’s brain.

“This study, more than any other to date, really gets at the ‘inside’ of Einstein’s brain,” said Dean Falk, a Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist and a co-author of the study. “It provides new information that helps make sense of what is known about the surface of Einstein’s brain.”

Men’s team analyzed photographs of Einstein’s corpus callosum to measure its thickness, comparing these measurements to the corpus callosums of a group of 15 elderly men and a group of 52 26-year-old men. The latter age group was chosen because that was Einstein’s age in 1905, the “miracle year” in which he published four articles that shaped the foundation of modern physics.

The researchers found that parts of Einstein’s corpus callosum were thicker than the other subjects, indicating a larger number of nerves running between the two hemispheres. These connections were more extensive than the other subjects, something which is believed to lead to greater interhemispheric communication.

I should start by saying I am not a neurologist and therefore can’t give an expert opinion on this matter. However, having studied quite a bit of literature on Einstein’s brain for a previous post, I can only look at this study with extreme skepticism.

After Einstein’s death, his brain was studied extensively by Doctor Harry Zimmerman, a highly accomplished neuropathologist. Zimmerman never published anything about the brain, because he found nothing noteworthy. Both Zimmerman and other pathologists found the brain to be relatively average for a man of Einstein’s age. There were a few deviations from the average human brain. The lateral sulcus is shorter than most and some differences in the partial lobe had been found.

There have been a few studies on the brain, attempting to explain Einstein’s genius through both macroscopic and microscopic differences in his brain. One of the first claimed that a high number of gilial cells explained Einstein’s intellect. Yet this is disputed by the fact that gilial cells tend to increase with age and the brains Einstein’s was compared to were younger. Other studies have focused on the uncommon macroscopic features of Einstein’s brain.

Yet none of the features have really been especially striking, not even by the pathologists who spent the most time studying the actual brain after Einstein’s death. The human brain is a complex organ and no two are exactly the same. Few of us will have a brain that falls directly down the center of human averages, since the averages include extremes. Furthermore, the macroscopic structure of a brain does not necessarily reveal how it works internally. The brain can be very plastic and function is not obvious from post-mortum examination.

To say Einstein’s brain had features that are unusual would be like saying that a person who is 6’5″ is unusual. Yes, it is taller than most people. You could probably go all day without seeing someone that tall. But it is hardly extraordinary. There are, in fact, people that tall and it’s not something you’ll never see if you meet enough people.

Thus, I remain skeptical. I honestly think they are barking up the wrong tree. Einstein was a brilliant scientist, but his contributions likely have more to do with his education, upbringing, curiosity and the simple fact that he came up with some ideas nobody else had. It’s not likely the result of a structural difference in his brain.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 8th, 2013 at 8:47 am and is filed under Bad Science, Good Science, History, Misc. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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6 Responses to “New Report Claims Differences in Einstein’s Brain”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    Einstein while undoubtedly brilliant and a genius, was not orders of magnitude smarter than all of the leading minds during that era. And while there is no question that his contributions were pivotal there where others whose work in the field was no less important. To some extent Einstein’s fame was amplified by the fact that he had good press; he was situated in the U.S., and his looks and demeanor were what the public expected a scientific genius to be.

    Furthermore any study of this sort would require the brains of several people that had manifested genius showing the same structural differences for any findings to be valid. A single sample is not much to draw meaningful conclusions upon.

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  2. 2
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    To some extent Einstein’s fame was amplified by the fact that he had good press; he was situated in the U.S., and his looks and demeanor were what the public expected a scientific genius to be.

    Though he was famous long before he moved to the US (in fact he’d pretty much done all he was famous for before then).

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  3. 3
    drbuzz0 Says:

    I would agree. He was brilliant, but not so brilliant as to be one of a kind of intellect amongst humans.

    He gained the most fame and became known for his intellect because of the Theory Of Relativity. But I don’t think it was just something that came from him because he had the right brain. His genius was part of it, but he also came at the right time. He came at the time when problems explaining things like the speed of light were being observed and when observation of radioactivity was starting to cause questioning of the nature of energy.

    Without taking down Einstein’s contributions, I really believe that, had he not been around, the laws of relativity would have been discovered anyway. It was just the right time. It might not have been all at once, but someone was bound to start to figure it out.

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  4. 4
    Gordon Says:

    It seems like it would be a lot more interesting and productive to examine a brain when it is alive and the functions can be mapped. It’s too bad in Einstein’s day they didn’t have PET scans or FMRI’s. I think that you are correct that only so much can be drawn from examining the brain after death. Maybe there are some differences, but what do they mean? At best, it is speculation to say they were important to his way of thinking.

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  5. 5
    ebohlman Says:

    DV82XL’s point about a sample of one is definitely spot on; as it stand, the supposed conclusion begs the question (using “begging a question” correctly) of how, if at all, the level of inter-hemispheric connectivity affects cognitive ability. The conclusion simply presupposes that it does.

    And genius is really as much a matter of fame as it is of intelligence. It’s commonly stated that there are fewer geniuses nowadays than in the Good Old Days, but (in the sciences) that’s largely because it takes a much bigger contribution to be considered a genius today than it did back when science was just starting to discover the fundamentals. There was a lot of low-hanging fruit back then. (In the humanities, the assertion is completely stupid since there genius has always been determined by the ability of someone’s work to long outlast him and therefore we can’t know who, if any, today’s geniuses are. Shakespeare wouldn’t have been considered a genius in his time; we consider him one now because his work still speaks to us 400 years after it was written.)

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  6. 6
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