Einstein's brain

BRAIN AREA: Cerebral Cortex – Parietal Lobe – Visual information, ethics

See Image 1

After suffering an abdominal aortic aneurysm, 76-year-old Albert Einstein refused life support and died just after 1 am on 18 April 1955. By 9 am his brain had been removed, weighed, examined and dissected for further research. However, investigation of Einstein's brain was contrary to specific instructions in his will which stipulated cremation of his body to prevent interference with his brain after he died. Although permission to examine Einstein's brain was obtained from his son Hans Albert, this was after Einstein's brain had been removed. Motivation for research on Einstein's brain was largely driven by the desire to find evidence for his genius. It was surmised that examining Einstein's brain would provide clues to the remarkable power that revolutionised physics.

In 1949, Einstein had described his thinking process thus: 'The words or the language, as they are written and spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced or combined.' In other words, not only could he could imagine and see the key elements of his theories and ideas, he could replay and manipulate them before transforming them into language, into useful findings and formulae. Some subsequent studies of Einstein's brain found enlargement of his inferior parietal lobes (see Image 1). Because these areas deal with visuospatial processing and imagery, it was suggested this abnormality may have contributed to Einstein's ability to imagine complex ideas. Unfortunately, we do not know if Einstein was born with these advantages, or whether structural changes occurred as a result of the way Einstein used his brain (neuroplasticity).

References & further reading

Diamond, M. C., Scheibel, A. B., Murphy, G. M. Jr, & Harvey, T. (1985). On the brain of a scientist: Albert Einstein. Experimental Neurology, 88(1), 198–204. https://doi.org/10.1016/0014-4886(85)90123-2

Kremmer, W. (2015, April 15). The strange afterlife of Einstein's brain. BBC World Service Magazine. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32354300

Men, W., Falk, D., Sun, T., Chen, W., Li, J., Yin, D., Zang, L., & Fan, M. (2014). The corpus callosum of Albert Einstein‘s brain: Another clue to his high intelligence? Brain, 137(4), Article e268. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awt252

Witelson, S. F., Kigar, D. L., & Harvey, T. (1999). The exceptional brain of Albert Einstein. Lancet, 353(9170), 2149–2153. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(98)10327-6