They Lost Einstein’s Brain

Well, most of it anyway.

The other day I wrote about finding moon rocks in Minnesota, one of 50 displays given out after the Apollo XI mission and nearly all unaccounted for today.

Now the Washington Post has reported on another missing scientific treasure. When Albert Einstein died in 1955, his son allowed the examining pathologist, Thomas Harvey, to preserve the brain for scientific study.

Harvey photographed the brain and then cut it into 240 blocks, which were embedded in a resinlike substance. He cut the blocks into as many as 2,000 thin sections for microscopic study, and in subsequent years distributed slides and photographs of the brain to at least 18 researchers around the world

With the exception of the slides Harvey kept for himself, no one knows where the rest of the specimens are anymore.

However, Harvey’s materials have yielded several new studies in the past few years.

Anthropologist Dean Falk’s 2009 study “found that Einstein’s parietal lobes — which might be linked to his remarkable ability to conceptualize physics problems — had a very unusual pattern of grooves and ridges.”

After Harvey died, his Einstein items were transferred since his death to the U.S. Army’s National Museum of Health and Medicine. Another study by Falk and collaborators compared Einstein’s brain with those of 85 other people:

Although the brain is only average in size, several regions feature additional convolutions and folds rarely seen in others. 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 — is also greatly expanded.

I hope you’re “Uh-hmm”-ing along with me like those Viennese doctors in the old 1930s comedies. Just imagine if we really knew what it all means.

6 thoughts on “They Lost Einstein’s Brain

  1. One wonders whether the study of Einstein’s brain resulted in any useful knowledge … probably not. What made Einstein the scientist he was probably had nothing to do with the phyisical structure of his brain, any more than apparently did with the size of it. Also, while Einstein is regarded as one of the centuries most outstanding minds, much of that is due to the nature of his work … not the brain power it took to do the work. Who is to say whether the work done by Minkowski, DeBrolgie,. Einstein or a hundred others took the greater intelligence to do?

  2. No and yes. No, I tend to agree the study of the deceased Einstein’s brain was just celebrity mongering, because they can analyze it for differences from the average, but nobody knows what it means. Yes, I believe the differences in various brain structures are relevant to optimal performance of activities.

    There was a California mathematician some years ago who made the news for solving a famous math conundrum. Trying to answer a reporter’s question, he credited his great memory as important to being able to do advanced math. Maybe calling it “memory” is as close as somebody can get who’s experiencing more optimal brain function — maybe it’s those extra wrinkles in the right place?

  3. Deeper folds mean more surface area to the cerebrum = larger brain surface for abstract concepts.

    Cro-Magnon humans had larger brains by weight than Homo sapiens sapiens, but less deep folds, for less surface area.

    It’s the same as the (comparatively) small Lake of the Ozarks, formed by the damming of the Osage River in Missouri by the Bagnell Dam hydro-electric power station having a longer shoreline than Lake Michigan.

  4. One thing for certain about brain structure — anomalous, incomplete or deformed structures in the brain usually have dire results.

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