The journey of Einstein's brain

The journey of Einstein's brain
Albert Einstein is regarded as one of the most brilliant minds of the planet. He was endowed with a high level of intelligence, ability to conceive and manipulate three-dimensional spatial images, mathematical representations of concepts and music too.

During his lifetime, many wondered if his brain has been wired differently to account for such exceptional abilities.  But one man did the unthinkable. Within hours after Einstein’s death on April 18, 1955 (during the autopsy), Dr Thomas Harvey, a pathologist at the Princeton hospital in the US, removed the brain that worked out the theory of relativity and conceived the equivalence of matter and energy. He carefully weighed the intact brain, photographed it from various angles, injected 50 per cent formalin through the carotid arteries and suspended the whole brain in 10 per cent formalin for preservation. Later, he dissected the brain to 240 blocks of approximately one centimetre cube size and embedded them in collodion — a plastic-like material. The whole purpose was to study the brain to understand the neurological basis of Einstein’s extraordinary intellect. However, what followed was simply bizarre.

To begin with, whether Thomas had the consent of Einstein or his family to remove the brain is in dispute. Brain Burrell in his book, Postcards from the Brain Museum, recounts, “Harvey did not have the permission nor did he have a legal right to keep the brain to himself,” but later, he obtained “retroactive blessing from Einstein’s son, Hans Albert.” However, the University of Princeton was not pleased by these developments and dismissed Thomas for refusing to surrender the precious pieces. For more than two decades, he wandered, almost incognito, through various cities of midwestern USA, doing odd jobs. And all through that time, nothing was known about the fate of Einstein’s brain until a young journalist Steven Levy set out to rediscover it.

Unravelling the intelligence

Though Thomas was reluctant to entertain any queries from Steven Levy about his possession, he slowly opened up and pulled out a cardboard box stacked along with a pile of books. In his article, My Search for Einstein’s Brain, published in the New Jersey Monthly of August 1978, Steven describes the experience, “It had no lid, but on top were crumpled newspapers. He then took out a mason jar filled with several pieces of matter. There was a conch-shaped mass of wrinkly material, a spongy chunk of grey material, and some pinkish strings that looked like bloated dental floss. Thomas explained they were Einstein’s cerebellum, a chunk of cerebral cortex, and some aortic vessels. Then he went back to the box and pulled out a big glass jar with a metal lid affixed on the top and a masking tape. Floating in the chemical goo were a number of identically sliced and numbered translucent cubes. There it was: Einstein’s brain!” 

Steven further wrote, “I had suspected that the inevitable lifelessness of the material world would make looking at the brain matter as interesting as viewing a dead jellyfish. My fears were unjustified. For a moment, with the brain before me, I had been granted a rare peek into an organic crystal ball. Swirling in formaldehyde was the power of the smashed atom, the mystery of the universe’s black holes, the utter miracle of human achievement. It is something of ourselves at our best.” Steven’s story was reported in all newspapers of that time and several neuroscientists approached Thomas for samples. Thomas shared pieces of Einstein’s brain to be sliced, diced, probed, and prodded by those hoping to locate the source of his genius.

In 1997, Thomas carried the remaining stuff all the way to California to offer it to Einstein’s granddaughter, who refused to accept. After Thomas’ death in 2007, his heirs transferred his prized possession — including the 14 photographs of the whole brain and the many fragments — to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, MD, USA. And 46 pieces of Einstein’s brain were also obtained by Mutter Museum and Historical Medical Library at Philadelphia. They were kept for public display in 2013.

Most of the scientific studies that followed the rediscovery did not find any telling difference between Einstein’s brain and those of normal people of his age. Even its weight, at 1,230 gram, placed it “within the average range”. However, some neurological and anatomical deviations were noted, which the investigators readily attributed to his uncanny thought experiments, fertile imagination, mathematical and musical abilities.

But critics point out faults in methodology like the choice of controls, statistical analysis of data, selection bias and so on. They further argue that the structure-function issues of brain cannot be resolved by studying post-mortem brains. Instead, live brains of such brilliant individuals should be studied using modern imaging techniques such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET), functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI). Even then, if some differences were spotted, one cannot for sure say, “that is why he became a great physicist. Maybe, it’s because that is what doing Physics does to your brain,” commented Albert Galaburda, professor of neurology at Harvard. Hence, even after all these years, the neurological substrate of Einstein’s genius still remains a mystery.
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