Einstein was undoubtedly one of the most influential physicists of all time, advancing concepts in quantum physics and gaining enormous notoriety for his theory of relativity. Einstein was also a keen philosopher, proclaiming that “… independence by philosophical insight is… the mark of distinction between mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker of truth.”
It comes as no surprise that Einstein’s brain appears physiologically distinct from that of the average individual. A recent study has sought to explain the man’s genius-level intellect, in part, based a difference in a structure called the corpus callosum.
Einstein’s Autopsied Brain
Many have attempted to understand what inspired the German-born prodigy. A pathologist, named Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey, working at Princeton University, even attempted to establish whether there was a physiological trait that could explain the inner workings of Einstein’s extraordinary mind.
Einstein died from internal bleeding, following a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. In 1955, Harvey, who was responsible for conducting Einstein’s autopsy, removed his subject’s brain, without requesting the permission of his family. Harvey then preserved Einstein’s brain in formalin, before snapping a vast number of photographs. After documenting the details of the specimen, he carved it up into approximately 240 individual sections, with the principal ambition of allowing the scientific community to research what made Einstein so truly remarkable.
Harvey retained his photographs to write a book, which he was never able to finish. Following Harvey’s demise, his family decided to donate the images to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, during 2010.
Decades after Einstein’s departure, it seems scientists are finally able to figure out the mysteries of the great man’s brain.
The Corpus Callosum Study
The latest research study, entitled The Corpus Callosum of Albert Einstein’s Brain: Another Clue to His High Intelligence, was published in the research journal Brain.
The study demonstrated that the association between the left and right hemispheres of Einstein’s brain were atypical, with enhanced connection between these two parts. Evolutionary Anthropologist, Dean Falk, of Florida State University, collaborated on the project. Falk explains how the study offers greater insight into the illustrious physicist’s brain, improving upon prior research studies.
The part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres of the brain is known as the corpus callosum (A.K.A. the colossal commissure), a bundle of neuronal fibers that sits beneath the cerebral cortex, uniting the two hemispheres in the brains of higher order mammals.
The study, which was led by Weiwei Men of East China Normal University, managed to establish a novel technique to explore the “internal connectivity” of Einstein’s corpus callosum, for the very first time.
Using their new method, the team were able to determine the relative thickness of various subdivisions throughout length of the corpus callosum. These differences in thickness were then color-coded to provide the research group with an approximation for the number of neurons stretching between the left and rights hemispheres; a thicker corpus callosum suggests there to be a greater number of neurons.
In addition, different regions of the corpus callosum are implicated in specialist functions. For example, neurons situated at the front of this interlinking region of the brain are involved in movement of hands, whilst neurons running along its posterior are thought to be implicated in mental arithmetic.
The researchers applied their technique to compare Einstein’s corpus callosum to two sample groups, including one group of over a dozen elderly men, and another group of 52 men that were Einstein’s age in 1905. 1905 was a pivotal year in Albert Einstein’s life, publishing seminal articles on Brownian motion, the special theory of relativity, the photoelectric effect, as well as work that yielded the renowned E = mc2 formula.
Following their study, the researchers concluded that Einstein’s brain demonstrated more extensive connections at particular points along the corpus callosum. The team suggest this could, at least partially, explain some of Einstein’s supreme intellectual abilities.
Falk and his colleagues had investigated Einstein’s brain on a previous occasion, in 2012. Simply through analysis of Harvey’s autopsy photographs, the team were able to visibly
identify features of Einstein’s brain that could be fundamental to the man’s intellect. They found greater intricacy and convolution patterns across certain regions of his brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, the visual cortex and the parietal lobes.
The prefrontal cortex is critical to abstract thinking, decision-making and expression of personality traits, whilst the parietal lobe is involved in sense and motor function. Intriguingly, Falk’s group found that the somatosensory cortex, which receives sensory input information, was also increased in magnitude in an area that corresponded to his left hand. As Einstein was an avid violinist, after having been inspired by a number of Mozart’s pieces at age 13, the group drew a correlation between this enlarged cortical region and his musical aptitude.
According to Live Science, Sandra Witelson, a scientist based at McMaster University, who has performed prior studies into Einstein’s brain, explained the physiological difference in the physicist’s neural tissue:
“It’s not just that it’s bigger or smaller, it’s that the actual pattern is different… His anatomy is unique compared to every other photograph or drawing of a human brain that has ever been recorded.”
Marion C. Diamond and colleagues, working at the University of California, published an article in 1985, called on the brain of a scientist: Albert Einstein. Fascinatingly, after performing microscopic cell counts, they found Einstein had an exceedingly high ratio of glial cells (a non-neuronal support cell) to regular neuronal cells, in two parts of his brain.
It seems that Albert Einstein’s thicker corpus callosum may have been partly responsible for his genius-level intellect. However, it is likely that a combination of physiological factors played a part shaping the enigmatic theoretical physicist. The question is, will there ever be another extraordinary mind like Einstein’s?
By: James Fenner