People will never tire of hearing how smart that Einstein fellow was. And following logically from that, apparently, is the truism that people will never tire of hearing about Einstein’s brain. This organ is so fascinating that it has it’s own wikipedia page full of information gleaned by its examination after it was stolen from the dear genius’ head (before being lost and then found again). And every so often a new study will exclaim about the extravagant protrusion arising from one portion of it or another leading to a series of silly articles in the popular press claiming the secret to Einstein’s smarts.
The latest explanations come from – I shit you not – a series of fourteen recently discovered photographs taken when Einstein’s brain was being sectioned. No, they did not actually examine his brain, they just looked at some photos and called it a day. Now, they’re examining these pictures and looking for things that are different about his brain from other brains, things that are known to change with recent experience and age, and they find certain areas that are larger than average or strange or so on and so forth. And they find certain things look different: “Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein’s brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary.”
We are now forced to wonder not just how a 76-year old Einstein’s brain was different from his youthful 20-year old self but also why we should be giving these differences credit for his intelligence rather than for his, say, keen ability at sailing. Did his engorged motor cortex really make him so smart?
The big problem here is the signal-to-noise. The thing about every person having a different brain is that every person will have something unique about their brain. Ascribing a single salient characteristic about a person, especially as an audience to a historical figure, to what is non-average about their brain is absurd. Einstein was more than just a physics-solving machine and the size of any part of his brain may have played very little role in his intelligence (or it may have: who knows).
And all this is neglecting the fact that what made him so special may be nothing at all about the hardware of his brain instead of the software of his mind (so to speak).
The truth is, we will never know what was special about Einstein by studying pictures of his brain and I can think of little that it will tell us beyond how easy it is to get a popular press article written about anything to do with Einstein. Instead, read about what psychology tells us about learning and motivation. Read what neuroscience tells us about the same. They have lots to say; the brain of Einstein does not, and never will.
Update – As pointed out to me by Alice Proverbio, Einstein was also a violinist and musicians are known to have a thicker corpus callosum, something never mentioned in the paper… Just highlighting how silly it is to pluck one aspect of a person (intelligence) and project onto it whatever oddities you find!
Men W, Falk D, Sun T, Chen W, Li J, Yin D, Zang L, & Fan M (2013). The corpus callosum of Albert Einstein’s brain: another clue to his high intelligence? Brain : a journal of neurology PMID: 24065724
Falk, D, Lepore, FE, & Noe, A (2013). The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs Brain : a journal of neurology DOI: 10.1093/brain/aws295