The Myth of Einstein’s Brain?

By Neuroskeptic | May 24, 2014 4:30 pm

There was nothing special about Albert Einstein’s brain.

falk_einsteinNothing that modern neuroscience can detect, anyway. This is the message of a provocative article by Pace University psychologist Terence Hines, just published in Brain and Cognition: Neuromythology of Einstein’s brain

As Hines notes, the story of how Einstein’s brain was preserved is well known. When the physicist died in 1955, his wish was to be cremated, but the pathologist who performed the autopsy decided to save his brain for science. Einstein’s son Hans later gave his blessing to this fait accompli. Samples and photos of the brain were then made available to neuroscientists around the world, who hoped to discover the secret of the great man’s genius. Many have claimed to have found it. But Hines isn’t convinced.

Some researchers, for instance, have used microscopy to examine Einstein’s brain tissue on a histological (cellular) level. Most famous amongst these studies is Diamond et al, who in 1985 reported that Einstein’s brain had a significantly higher proportion of glial cells than those of matched, normal control brains. However, Hines points out that this ‘finding’ may have been a textbook example of the multiple-comparisons problem:

Diamond et al. (1985) reported four different t-tests, each comparing Einstein’s brain to the brains of the controls. Only one of the four tests performed was significant at the .05 level.

Although only the results of the neuron to glial cell ratios were reported by Diamond et al. (1985), the paper makes it clear that at least six other dependent measures were examined: (1) number of neurons, (2) total number of glial cells, (3) number of astrocytes, (4) number of oligodendrocytes, (5) neuron to astrocyte ratio and (6) neuron to oligodendrocyte ratio.

Thus a total of seven different dependent measures were examined in four different brain areas for a total of 28 comparisons… one p less than 0.05 result out of 28 is not surprising.

Other histological studies followed from other researchers, but Hines says that they do not present a coherent picture of clear differences:

In summary the three histological studies of Einstein’s brain have, in spite of claims to the contrary, found essentially no differences between his brain and that of controls. This should not come as any great surprise. The brain is obviously an extremely complex structure… to believe that the analyses of one or a few tiny slices of a single brain could reveal anything related to the specific cognitive abilities of that brain is naïve.

He concludes by suggesting that all of the claimed discoveries might reflect confirmation bias on the part of the researchers, and he proposes a blinded ‘Pepsi challenge‘-type test to see whether the claimed differences are real or just wishful thinking:

Future studies need to use more rigorous methodologies… For example, qualified but blinded observers could be asked to distinguish between microscope slides of Einstein’s brain and average brains. If there are actual differences, such an experimental methodology would reveal them.

So much for histology. How about the size and shape of Einstein’s brain as a whole – the neuroanatomy? Here, Hines says, the story is much the same. Various features of Einstein’s brain structure have been held up as abnormal, but it is not clear whether these are unique to Einstein as opposed to just normal variants.

Hines also criticizes the logic of trying to ‘explain’ Einstein’s mind from his neuroanatomy, post hoc. In response to one recent attempt, Hines says

Falk et al comment on “the extraordinary expansion of the lateral part of Einstein’s left primary somatosensory and left primary motor cortices” the face and tongue areas. They say “In this context it is interesting that Einstein’s famously wrote that thinking entailed an association of images and feelings, and that, for him, the elements of thought were, not only visual, but also muscular”

The fact that Einstein described his thinking in such a way is “interesting”. But would anyone ever have taken that description of his thinking process and predicted that the motor cortex in his left hemisphere representing his face and tongue would be “extraordinarily expanded”? I think the answer is clearly “no”.

This type of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning pervades much of the interpretations of the cognitive correlates of the observed differences in Einstein’s brain.

 

I haven’t studied the Einstein-brain literature in any detail, but I’m skeptical that a study with (effectively) a sample size of one can tell us much about the neurobiology of something as hard to define as genius.

Terence Hines, incidentally, has a track record of pouring cold water on hot anatomical claims – for instance when, in 2001, he cast doubt on the G-spot: a modern gynecological myth. His psychological output includes papers with such interesting titles as National Hockey League players from North America are more violent than those from Europe and male entertainment award winners are older than female winners.

ResearchBlogging.orgHines, T. (2014). Neuromythology of Einstein’s brain Brain and Cognition, 88, 21-25 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandc.2014.04.004

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Einstein was different. The Manhattan Project was different. Bell Labs was different. Google is different. The Severely and Profoundly Gifted cannot be counterfeited, decreed, or manufactured. Or understood. They simply are.

    Diversity says, anybody can be given any credential to be put in charge of anything re USSR’s staffing positions of power with peasants. Professor Angela Davis. In 2014, college is high school. Intelligence does not exist, it cannot be measured, it makes no difference.

    http://dailycaller.com/2013/11/26/prof-corrects-minority-students-capitalization-is-accused-of-racism/
    Any society that values the congenitally inconsequential is doomed. Doom is not a function of managerial quantitation, social advocacy, or politicized science. Doom simply is.

    • John Doe

      It’s the quality of the neuronal connections, not the quantity.

      One of his final papers, titled “Physics and Reality,” suggests that relativity derives from introspection creating a bifurcation of the internal and external world.

      In other words, I believe that his genius was the ability to laterally integrate information at a high level across multiple domains.

      • EdytaHusseinmuo

        Peyton . true that Jessica `s blurb is shocking, last
        monday I got a gorgeous Peugeot 205 GTi after having earned $6860 this past 4
        weeks an would you believe ten-k this past-month . with-out a doubt this is the
        easiest-job I’ve ever had . I actually started six months/ago and pretty much
        immediately started to bring in minimum $84… p/h . Read More Here F­i­s­c­a­l­p­o­s­t­.­C­O­M­

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

        yep, that explains it… now tell us where wormholes are hiding?….

        • John Doe

          the same place the worms are

        • John Doe

          I cannot; please tell me.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      what is doom?, and where is it?…

  • Alejandro

    Yeah there was something special about Einstein’s brain. You “scientists” just don’t know why.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      he was alien…

  • cloud

    of course there isn’t anything special about Einstein’s physical brain. There is a mental quality to intelligence which cannot be accounted for just by studying someone’s physical brain. It doesn’t even make sense when the common method for understanding how someone’s brain functions requires giving the person certain tasks to perform or asking them questions and then viewing the corresponding brain activity— which synapses are being lit up between regions etc. How is it surprising to anyone that “nothing special” was found?
    Also nice to know people did this despite Einstein’s request to be cremated. No respect.

  • Guest

    qq

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Maurice Taffari

      I have a I 7 computer latest issue full of ram, pretty fast machine, unfortunately until I hit enter it’s pretty stupid. In einsteins case , there’s no sense taking the computer apart,when obviously it was the program that was brilliant. if it were possible his genius would excel in any other comparable human

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      4q2..

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  • Heimdall222

    Whether or not Einstein’s brain was “different” or “special”, at the end of the day…he’s still dead!

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      a remarkable conclusion..

  • Gregor McHardy

    If everything about Einstein is material, then there is going to be something superlative about his brain. Whether we have the tools to find and recognize it is something else, but those who hold that there is nothing immaterial must also admit that everything to be found about Einstein is ultimately in his brain. If you admit that what made Einstein’s brain special is no longer there, then you have to also admit that there is something that once existed other than matter…and that, Mr. Neuroskeptic, sounds like a soul.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      nah, conscious versus unconscious is what you are saying… being awake, functioning, reasoning, teaching, learning, creating, crying, laughing, etc.etc. is different than being asleep… so is your soul asleep when you are asleep?.. if you died in your sleep you would never know it would you…

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  • Bill

    That the scientists may not be able to see nor differentiate from the brains of the retarded, normal persons and those of Einsteins isn’t that surprising. Examining the brain in such a way has not gotten any funding so it is an area fo science that is difficent. At one time most of what we know today was unknown becasue we had no way to see and test it technically. It is widley said that there is ‘No African gene!” Yet, African’s are all black. They have flat, rather than round, hair folicles. If you breed a black with white european stock over generations, the African featues disapear. Reverse the breeding and they will reappear. Clearly black traits are controled by genetics, it is not just luck that African’s are all black, it is in their genes. Our brain is also an expression of our genes. The brain becomes what the genes require it to become. If humanity funds research into the area, then in time we will have the ablity to see the differences. It is simply a technical problem.
    Homo-Neanderthalis, had a bigger brain, but wasn’t as smart as Homo-Sapiens. Clearly they had a genetic superiority that allowed a smaller brain to calculate faster than Neanderthal’s larger brain. We see the same development with computers. From Eniac, to today’s pocket, smart phones, computing power has grown while comuters have shrunk. Nature works the same way. That we cannot yet see the difference at the cellular level matters little to the reality that we see around us. My brain thinks because my genes make it so, therefore I am.

    • Fart Fartington

      Well… I don’t know about Neanderthals not being as smart as homo-sapiens. Modern science has cast doubt on that, stating that they had fairly complex skills. They apparently used fire, had some sort of spoken language, used tools, coordinated hunts, and most likely wore jewelry and used pigments for body painting.

      I’ve heard different explanations as to why they vanished. One theory holds that they couldn’t speak as well as us. I believe I’ve seen others cast doubt on that theory. I believe there was a theory about us being better built for endurance. One theory holds that they interbred with us and the male offspring were infertile.

      Not really your point, I just felt like mentioning it.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

        good lord… all our ancestors were affected by the many and varied catastrophes on earth just like dinosaurs.. our primal families diverged, then separated, then died out, then reappeared, then died out, mutated, etc.etc.etc. for millions of years… there is less than 3% difference in our DNA and our cousins the Chimpanzees…..

      • facefault

        Neanderthals were definitely very close to as smart as us, but there are good reasons to believe they weren’t *quite* as smart. They didn’t make tools as complex as H. sapiens of the time did, for example; and the best Neanderthal tools (the Chatelperronian industry) seem to have appeared only after they made contact with modern humans.

        They also never had any long-distance trade, which humans of the era did (moving obsidian cores around the Mediterranean).

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      nah, your brain thinks because it is alive!.. all else is relative.

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  • John Chesh

    Note what was looked at. Glia and neurons and numbers of such. No where were the actual synapses studied, the actual wiring of the neurons. Because the cortex of the brain looks pretty much the same anywhere except for the motor strip, it’s clearly the WIRING which counts, and that’s the synapses which are created with long term memory and training.

    So, it’s kind of like, no small planetoids were found, because we didn’t look out there, either, nor long enough beyond the orbit of Neptune.

    It’s not the number of transistors in the chip which counts, so much as the actual wiring. If they’d count synapses in normals and then compare to Einstein’s brain, then they might find something.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      damn, it’s a shame those silly neurologists and scientists did not think of that..tch tch tch..

    • visibleunderwater

      At least from what I read here, Hines ignores this:
      ” this study showed that Einstein’s parietal lobes–the top, back parts of the brain–were actually 15% larger than average. Two structures, the left angular gyrus and supermarginal gyrus, were particularly enlarged.”
      http://www.criver.com/about-us/eureka/blog/may-2012/einsteins-brain

      You wouldn’t be able to tell this on a cellular level. This research also refutes Hines:
      “The research team’s findings show that Einstein had more extensive connections between certain parts of his cerebral
      hemispheres compared to both younger and older control groups.”
      http://www.life-enhancement.com/magazine/article/2992-think-like-einstein

  • Einstein Santosh Sutar

    That’s an Interesting.

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  • mbpradas

    I am neither a doctor nor Scientist. But I am sure of one thing, cells also die with the physical body. So a research on a dead man`s brain can not bring a new proof. It should me done by another means as they do now. These researchers wasting money and time just like lovers. (You are free to shout at me)

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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