In a remarkable new study of the legendary physicist and all round genius Albert Einstein’s brain, we now have a better understanding of why he was so brilliant. A team comprising of anthropologist Dean Falk of Florida State University, neurologist Frederick Lepore of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and Adrianne Noe, director of NMHM, analyzed 14 photographs of Einstein’s entire brain from pathologist Thomas Harvey’s collection that have never before been made public. From Sciencemag.org:
The team compared Einstein’s brain with those of 85 other humans already described in the scientific literature and found that the great physicist did indeed have something special between his ears. Although the brain, weighing 1230 grams, is only average in size, several regions feature additional convolutions and folds rarely seen in other subjects. For example, the regions on the left side of the brain that facilitate sensory inputs into, and motor control of, the face and tongue are much larger than normal; and his prefrontal cortex—linked to planning, focused attention, and perseverance in the face of challenges—is also greatly expanded.
“In each lobe,” including the frontal, parietal, and occipital lobes, “there are regions that are exceptionally complicated in their convolutions,” Falk says. As for the enlarged regions linked to the face and tongue, Falk thinks that this might relate to Einstein’s famous quote that his thinking was often “muscular” rather than in words. Although this comment is usually interpreted as a metaphor for his subjective experiences as he thought about the universe, “it may be that he used his motor cortex in extraordinary ways” connected to abstract conceptualization, Falk says. Albert Galaburda, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, says that “what’s great about this paper is that it puts down … the entire anatomy of Einstein’s brain in great detail.”
The study opens up another chapter in the nature vs nurture debate as it is unclear whether Einstein was born with a special brain, or he developed it as one would a muscle. The scientists studying his brain believe it shows both were responsible for Einstein’s unique insights into the abstract and incredibly complex world of astrophysics:
Falk agrees that both nature and nurture were probably involved, pointing out that Einstein’s parents were “very nurturing” and encouraged him to be independent and creative, not only in science but also in music, paying for piano and violin lessons. (Falk’s 2009 study found that a brain region linked to musical talent was highly developed in Einstein’s brain.)
“Einstein programmed his own brain,” Falk says, adding that when the field of physics was ripe for new insights, “he had the right brain in the right place at the right time.”
Either way, we do know Einstein was a genius. And the new study opens up the possibility that in theory, we too could become one.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.