A new study led by Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk has revealed that portions of the brain of Albert Einstein are unlike those of most people. The differences could relate to Einstein’s unique discoveries about the nature of space and time. Falk’s team used photographs of Einstein’s brain, taken shortly after his death, but not previously analyzed in detail. The photographs showed that Einstein’s brain had an unusually complex pattern of convolutions in the prefrontal cortex, which is important for abstract thinking.
In other words, Einsteins’ brain actually looks different from yours or mine. Falk and her team published their work on November 16, 2012 in the journal Brain.
Falk and her colleagues obtained 12 original photographs of Einstein’s brain from the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. They analyzed the photos and compared the patterns of convoluted ridges and furrows in Einstein’s prefrontal cortex with those of 85 brains described in other studies. According to an article in Nature, many of the photographs were taken from unusual angles. They apparently show brain structures that weren’t visible in previously analyzed photos.
How did Einstein’s brain come to undergo so much scrutiny? Pathologist Thomas Harvey performed an autopsy on Einstein shortly after his death in 1955. At that time, he removed Einstein’s brain and preserved it in formalin. He took dozens of black-and-white photos of the brain. Later, he cut Einstein’s brain up into 240 blocks, took tissue samples from each block, mounted them onto microscope slides and distributed the slides to some of the world’s best neuropathologists.
So studies of Einstein’s brain began, although the first detailed one didn’t appear for 30 more years. In 1985, a study revealed that two parts of Einstein’s brain contained an unusually large number of non-neuronal cells – called glia – for every neuron, or nerve-transmitting cell in the brain. Ten years after that, Einstein’s brain was found to lack a furrow normally seen in the parietal lobe. Scientists at that time said the missing furrow might have been related to Einstein’s enhanced ability to think in three dimensions, as well as to his mathematical skills.
Now the most recent study, by Falk et. al., suggests that the pattern of convolutions in Einstein’s prefrontal cortex looks different from most people’s. And if all this talk of removing Einstein’s brain, and photographing it, seems a bit ghoulish, well, the science journal Nature explains it this way:
Albert Einstein is considered to be one of the most intelligent people that ever lived, so researchers are naturally curious about what made his brain tick.
There’s no doubt that Einstein is the most famous abstract thinker known to most of us. His general and special theories of relativity changed the way the rest of us think about space and time, in ways you might take for granted. For example, Einstein said time is relative. It doesn’t click along steadily for everyone at the same rate. It’s Einstein who imagined such a thing, and can you picture yourself making that leap of thought, much less proving it to the world, using the tools of mathematics and physics?
Another example: Einstein altered scientists’ pre-existing understanding of gravity, and, in so doing, changed the way we think about the structure of space. In simple terms, Einstein said that matter causes space to curve. That’s what Einstein’s brain suggested to him and, ultimately, it’s what caused the 20th century revolution in physics.
Einstein’s ability to think abstractly – to think about fundamental properties of the universe in ways no one ever had – is why he’s considered the father of modern physics and the most influential physicist of the 20th century.
Bottom line: Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk led a study showing that portions of the brain of Albert Einstein are different from those of most people. Falk’s team used photographs of Einstein’s brain, taken shortly after his death, and showed that Einstein’s brain has an unusually complex pattern of convolutions in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is important for abstract thought. Falk and her team published their work on November 16, 2012 in the journal Brain.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.