After Albert Einstein’s death in 1955, scientists all over the world scrambled for the opportunity to get a piece of his brain. It was a pathologist by the name of Thomas Harvey who got to it first. After Harvey, a piece of Einstein’s brain went to a neuroanatomist named Marian Diamond, a PhD scientist from the University of California at Berkeley. Asking the question “What makes a genius a genius?” Diamond’s lab went looking for answers.
Bigger and Better things?
It’s only natural to assume that given Einstein’s high-powered cognition, his brain was simply, well, bigger, right? Myth #1: ‘Bigger is better.’
While this seems like a logical enough assumption, the fact is that brain size and cognitive power are not linked. Look at a whale, for example. A sperm whale’s brain is over 50 times bigger than a human’s, but you won’t see Shamu challenging Deep Blue to a chess match anytime soon. Weight also has little correlation with intelligence. In fact, a sperm whale’s brain weighs 17 pounds, an elephant’s a little over 10–whereas a human’s weighs about 3 pounds and accounts for approximately 2% of the total body weight.
A 1999 study by a research team at the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University, actually showed that Einstein’s brain was smaller than average. While smaller overall, there were, however, certain areas of his brain that were above average.
Based on photographs of his brain, 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. These areas, while known to have little to do with IQ, are linked to mathematical ability, visuospatial cognition and become highly active when making unusual associations on tests of creativity. The researchers concluded this was likely the reason Einstein could perform the conceptual gymnastics needed to think about time and space with such imagery and abstraction.
So, ‘bigger’ isn’t necessarily ‘better.’ Surely though, Einstein’s brain must have had more nerve cells, that is, neurons–those hard-working, fast-firing micro-machines, which network together and make up everything from the memories we retain to the personalities we display? Myth #2: ‘More is better.’
Unlike the first myth, there is some truth to this one. Einstein’s brain did actually have more brain cells. Not neurons, but rather a type of brain cell most neuroscientists never really paid much attention to.
And this brings us back to Marian Diamond’s research and the dissection of Einstein’s brain. What Diamond and her research team found was that Einstein’s brain had a higher percentage of brain cells, namely glial cells.
In brain science, neurons get all the glory. But the real miracle workers in the brain are the glial cells, Greek for “glue,” which protect and maintain neurons and cellular networks. Once thought to simply nourish (provide oxygen and nutrients) and support nerve cells (hold in place and remove waste), these cells have been found to speed communication between neurons and thus affect overall cognitive capacity. Diamond and her team found that Einstein’s brain had more glial cells relative to neurons, especially (that is, statistically significant) in an area of the brain called the left inferior parietal area, a region responsible for synthesizing information from different areas of the brain.
Making the Connection
Enhanced cognitive ability isn’t just a function of the number of glial cells, but also the number of connections between them–another finding from Diamond’s lab. No more myths here; we’ve always known that more connections between brain cells facilitates faster and more sophisticated communication. Such increased connections were found in Einstein’s brain, particularly in the cortex–the outermost and newest layer of the brain, which includes the prefrontal cortex, the temporal lobes and hippocampus (structure responsible for memory).
Seeking to understand what stimulated such enhanced connectivity, Diamond compared rats in an environment without environmental stimulation to rats in an enriched environment, also given a variety of learning tasks. Results showed that rats without any new challenges or learning tasks had less synaptic connections (measured by brain weight) than those rats that were challenged and forced to learn new information. Einstein showed this same extraordinary amount of connections in multiple brain regions, presumably due to his insatiable curiosity, determination to learn more and passion for solving the riddles physics had to offer.
The Makings of a Genius
When you think genius, you think of Albert Einstein. It’s no surprise then that after his death, every scientist under the sun wanted to see what made his supremely advanced organ tick. Keeping in mind that his is just one brain, with regard to size, the assumption that “bigger is better” was found to be false. Additionally, from studying his brain, the assumption that more cells makes for a better brain was also put to rest.
It appears the ‘glue’ in our brains has much to do with genius. Glial cells, which for years were thought to be the mother hens of the human brain, speed communication between neurons and enhance cognitive capability, especially when found in high numbers and with increased connectivity.
But, if you don’t believe any of this and want to see for yourself, Einstein’s brain can be found in all its glory at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia as well as in the British Museum where two of the 140 slices of his brain are on loan.