Albert Einstein, whose name is synonyms to “genius,” is one of the greatest physicists of all time. He gave us the “the ‘world’s most famous equation,” i.e., E = mc2 and the “Theory of Relativity” which along with Quantum Mechanics forms the basis of Modern Physics.
His theory of relativity changed the way we observe the universe. It introduced us to many new concepts like time dilation and length contraction. Also, it allows astronomers to predict various astronomical phenomena like neutron stars, black holes, and gravitational waves.
In 1921, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the law of “Photoelectric Effect.”
Soon he became the talk of the town, and he becomes probably one of the most famous physicists of all time. People were so fascinated by his discoveries that his brain becomes a subject of research and speculation.
This is the strange story of Albert Einstein’s brain after his death:
On 17 April 1955, Einstein experienced chest pains because of internal bleeding in his arteries. He was admitted to the Princeton Hospital, and doctors suggested that only surgery can save him. But he refused surgery saying, “I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share; it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”
Early next morning he died at the age of 76, having continued to work until near the end.
Just like others, Thomas Stoltz Harvey, a pathologist, was also fascinated by Einstein’s brain. He was the person who carried out the autopsy on Einstein’s brain shortly after Einstein’s death.
But unlike others, he goes to the extreme to study his brain. He removed Einstein’s brain for preservation and took it to his lab at the University of Pennsylvania without his family’s permission. He wanted to know what made Einstein a genius.
In his lab, he sectioned the preserved brain into 170 parts, a process that took three full months to finish.
Those 170 sections were then sliced in microscopic slivers and mounted onto slides and stained. Harvey created 12 sets of slides with each set consisting of hundreds of slides.
Harvey retained two complete sets for his study while he gave the remaining ones to the leading pathologists of the world.
Harvey also removed Einstein’s eyes and gave them to Einstein’s eye doctor, Henry Abrams. Henry placed them in a safe deposit box which is rumored to be somewhere in New York City.
However, months after the autopsy, Harvey was suspended from Princeton Hospital and was asked to return Einstein’s brain, which he refused.
When Einstein’s family members came to know about this, Harvey somehow convinced Einstein’s elder son, Hans Albert Einstein, on the condition that any study on Einstein’s brain would be carried out exclusively for the sake of science and that any findings would be published in a reputable scientific journal.
After nearly two decades, 23 years to be precise, a reporter named Steven Levy found Einstein’s brain in Harvey’s possession in 1978. He also published an article titled “I Found Einstein’s Brain” regarding the same.
The parts of the brain that he kept for his research were preserved in alcohol for more than 20 years in two big mason jars in a cider box.
But unfortunately, even after four decades, Harvey himself was not able to find anything useful. But the slides that he sends out to different researchers reveals some interesting information about Einstein’s brain, which we have discussed below.
Dr. Harvey died on April 5, 2007, at Princeton’s University Medical Center.
In 2010, Harvey’s heirs donated all of his holdings to the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
These include the remains of Albert Einstein’s brain and 14 pictures of the entire brain (now in pieces) that had never been disclosed to the public.
But Harvey was not a brain specialist. He had neither the means nor the expertise to study Einstein’s brain. So why did he removed it?
From his interviews with various journalists, it can be concluded that he was very hopeful that “Cytoarchitectonics,” a technique which is used to study the cellular composition of tissues of the brain would reveal some useful information about Einstein’s brain and his intelligence.
He was very optimistic that future neuroscience would be able to explore what made Einstein so smart and intelligent.
The Key Findings from the study of Einstein’s brain:
Getting into the details of the human brain and how it works is beyond the scope of this article. But let us discuss in brief about the key findings from the studies conducted on Einstein’s brain by various neurologists.
1. Size of Einstein’s Brain and Some Missing Parts
Einstein’s brain weighed 1,230 grams, which is less than an adult male brain (about 1,400 grams).
It means that his brain was smaller than that of an average male. But apart from this, his IQ was way higher than most of the people.
His brain’s inferior parietal lobe was 15% wider than average. This region mainly deals with mathematical thought, visuospatial cognition, and imagery of movement.
Another exciting part is Sylvian fissure, also known as the lateral sulcus, was missing in Einstein’s brain. This separates frontal and parietal lobes from the temporal lobe.
Also, his brain does not show any signs of aging, which is very unusual. His mind, even at the age of 76, was completely void of lipofuscin, the fine yellow-brown pigment granules which are responsible for aging or “wear and tear” of the human brain.
2. More Glial Cells
During the 1980s, Dr. Harvey met a neuroscientist named Marian Diamond, who is now considered as one of the founders of modern neuroscience.
She was conducting a series of experiments involving cell counts in the brains of rats. She and her team found out about the ability of the brain to change throughout an individual’s life with experience, which is now known as neuroplasticity.
She proposed this idea to Dr. Harvey, which he initially refused but finally mailed off four numbered blocks from Einstein’s cortex.
She and her team discovered that some parts of his brain have a higher proportion of glial cells than the average male brain.
Glial cells provide structural support for the neurons and acts as insulation between different neurons.
3. Neurons on the left side of the hippocampus are significantly larger than that of the right side.
In 2001, Dr. Dahlia Zaidel of the University of California, Los Angeles, studied two slices of Einstein’s brain, which consist of the hippocampus of his mind.
It is a subcortical brain structure that plays a crucial role in the formation of long term memories, also known as declarative memory.
Zaidel finds out that neurons on the left side of the hippocampus are significantly larger than that of the right side which concluded that Einstein’s left brain has a stronger neural connection between hippocampus and neocortex than his right.
4. Thicker Corpus Callosum
In 2013, in the journal Brain, a study was published regarding his brain’s corpus callosum.
The finding reveals that Einstein’s brain corpus callosum was thicker than those in control groups, which consists of 15 brains of elderly people and 52 brains from people aged 26.
This possibly indicates a better connection between both the hemispheres.
Corpus Callosum is a bundle of nerve fibers that connects left and right cerebral hemispheres enabling communication between them.
Whatever Dr. Harvey did was not ethical and definitely not for the sake of science as he pretended for the rest of his life.
After so many studies conducted on his brain, we still are not able to decode the reason behind his genius. Many researchers have also criticized these studies stating that selective bias has influenced these studies.
It means that only results which show differences between Einstein’s brain and other brains gets published. While the results which explain the similarities often tend to be neglected.
As a child, Albert Einstein was a slow learner and spoke very slowly. His parents feared that he might have some learning difficulties. But thankfully it turned out to be the opposite, and we get one of the most famous geniuses of the world.
But apart from all these studies, speculation and criticism, we often tend to forget what Einstein said about himself. He said,
When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge. All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration. At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.– Albert Einstein
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- Einstein On Creative Thinking | Psychology Today
- The corpus callosum of Albert Einstein‘s brain | NCBI
- Hippocampus | Scholarpedia
- The Long, Strange Journey of Einstein’s Brain | NPR
- Albert Einstein’s brain | Wikipedia