Albert Einstein’s brain: do geniuses really exist?

Picture showing how Einstein's brain is different from a normal brain
Why was Albert Einstein so intelligent? What was special about Einstein's brain?

When the popular physicist Albert Einstein died in 1955, the doctor who performed his autopsy removed his brain. He took pictures of the brain, already split in half. He measured it and weighed it. Albert Einstein’s brain weighed 1,230 grams, within the normal human range. Eventually, he dissected the brain into about 240 pieces and preserved it in celloidin. Then, he was secretly taking it to the different cities in the United States where he lived.

In the 1990s the doctor, Thomas Harvey, began to offer scientists around the world the possibility of studying Einstein’s brain. At that time, the Argentine researcher, Jorge A. Colombo, sent a letter to Harvey asking for some segments from Einstein’s brain. Harvey agreed to send them to the Conicet and CEMIC laboratories in Buenos Aires.

Based on the results of his research into Albert Einstein’s brain, Dr. Colombo reached the conclusion that the word “genius” should stop being used. According to Colombo, we must banish the word genius because all human beings have some talent. What happens is that not all of us are conditioned in the same way to express that talent.

Do geniuses exist?

Today it is known that expression of human intelligence depends on multiple factors. Inheritance, nutrition, upbringing, cognitive stimulation, and sociocultural environment to name just a few. All of these factors affect our brain which works as a series of complex networks of neurons and glias. Essentially, intelligence depends on the characteristics of each person and the society he lives in. Each society imposes certain rules, some of which can potentially stifle talents and extraordinary mental capacities.

According to Dr. Colombo, everyone has some kind of talent. Its expression, in turn, depends on the opportunities that society offers the individual. The most important thing is that the individual won’t suffer from inequality. According to Colombo, it is an “evolutionary crime” not to support those who come from a less favorable socioeconomic environment. Because the evolution of our species is closely associated with its level of inventiveness and creativity. 

Definition of genius

Oxford dictionary defines genius as an unusually great intelligence, skill, or artistic ability. But also as a person who is unusually intelligent or artistic, or who has a very high level of skill, especially in one area. The concept of ​​genius is a non-scientific construction. If a certain idea stands out, society regards it as genius. But there are many other talents in all areas of human endeavor that are being ignored due to social inequity on a global level.

How did Albert Einstein die?

It was April 18, 1955, when Einstein died. At the age of 76 he succumbed to internal bleeding at Princeton Hospital. An aneurysm that had literally given him stomach ache for a long time had ruptured. As Einstein wanted, his body was cremated and the ashes scattered in an unknown location. The eyes and the brain of the genius, however, went other ways: they were stolen. During Einstein’s autopsy Dr. Harvey removed his brain and later sectioned it into about 240 blocks. Much later, in the 1990s, different scientists tried to find a kind of marker in his brain that could be associated with his genius. 

Is there something extraordinary about Albert Einstein’s brain?

Einstein made great contributions to physics. However, we should be careful when making the inference that he was far more intelligent than many other scientists of his time. The trend to preserve the brains of political leaders, writers, and scientists began in the 19th century. To understand genius, researchers were looking for clues in the shapes and structures of the brains of notable people. To this end, brain banks were built in France, Russia, the United States, among other countries. But the results of their research were questioned because it was based on preconceptions, without evidence. 

At the time, researchers assumed that a person’s genius or talent had an anatomical marker. This prejudice was due to the misconceptions about brain function that prevailed in the 19th century. It was still influenced by localization theories such as that supported by Francis Gall, who is considered the founder of the pseudoscience of phrenology. Nevertheless, Gall’s assumption that personality traits, thoughts, and emotions are located in specific areas of the brain is considered an important milestone toward neuropsychology. However, at the time neurosciences had not yet received the seminal contributions of Sherrington, Ramón y Cajal, Camillo Golgi and other pioneers.

What distinctive characteristics did the researchers find?

One study compared Albert Einstein’s brain with 11 brains of individuals with normal intelligence. Researchers had found more glial cells relative to neurons in all areas studied. However, the difference was statistically significant in only the left inferior parietal area.

Other studies found an increased parietal lobe volume, an increase in astrocytes, and thinned cerebral cortex and corpus callosum. All of these studies, however, have been questioned. Their main limitation is the attempt to extract causal relationships of complex processes with structural observations of a particular, aged, formalin-fixed brain. 

Jorge Colombo’s research

Colombo’s team was studying a type of cell that is unique in the brain of primates, the so-called interlaminar glia. They wanted to know what was happening to that special glia in an intellectually intensive brain like Einstein’s. However, they already knew that some observed variations might not be specific to Einstein, but rather a consequence of changes associated with aging. In 1997, they ordered samples of Einstein’s brain from Dr. Harvey.

He agreed to send them to Argentina. The team had high expectations at the time. One of the works was done in collaboration with a laboratory in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Researchers found that the terminal masses of the interlaminar glial cell in Einstein’s brain had a particular thickening. But that kind of thickening is also found in the brains of people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers still do not know for sure whether this thickening is the product of a degenerative process. Or maybe it is linked to a particular functional aspect of the brain.

Einstein’s theory of relativity was not formulated from scratch, but is based on knowledge contributed by other scientists. No one denies Einstein’s talent, but neither should we obscure the contributions of previous scientists. Perhaps a phrase attributed to Einstein himself sums it all up: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

What eventually happened to Einstein’s brain?

After 42 years, the thought organ of the respected physicist finally ended up in pathology at Princeton – with Harvey’s successor. Thomas Harvey died ten years later, in 2007. In 2010, his heirs donated what was left of Einstein’s brain to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Chicago. 14 photos of the intact, not yet dismantled brain, which no one except Harvey had seen, were also found and transferred to the museum. Later, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia also bought a few pieces of Einstein’s brain – cut into slices and pulled onto slides. They have been on view in the permanent exhibition there since 2013.

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