60 Years Later… We’re Still Learning from Einstein

Indisputably, Albert Einstein was a genius. In fact, his intellectual achievements and contributions to modern science have made his name synonymous with the word genius. So what enables a man who was described by his earliest teachers as “mentally handicapped” and “a poor student” to conceptualize space, time, mass, and energy in a way that would literally change the world? Thanks to the pathologist who secretly smuggled his brain from the autopsy room, scientists have been exploring that question since his death in 1955.

Dr. Thomas Harvey wasn’t even scheduled to perform the autopsy and prepare the body for cremation. He was a last-minute replacement. Harvey found himself staring at the operating system of one of the most amazing minds in history. In that moment, he decided that we could not be – would not be – done learning from this brain.

Harvey left work that day with Einstein’s brain in his duffle bag. We can debate all day long about whether Harvey was a hero, opportunist, or criminal. He eventually got permission from Einstein’s family to study it “in the name of science.” Albert’s wild ride began.

Harvey sliced Einstein’s brain into 240 pieces. He sent small slivers to a handful of the best and brightest neuroscientists around the world and waited for them to report back with their findings. Meanwhile, he guarded the remainder of Einstein’s brain as if it were his own. As he waited for his hand-picked experts to unlock the secrets of this great mind, Harvey was both secretive and protective of his treasure and (according to him) his own chance to make a major contribution to science.

For the next 20 years, we didn’t hear much about either the brain or the research. In 1978, 27-year old journalist, Steven Levy would put Einstein back in the headlines. As it turns out, Levy’s editor was fascinated with the missing brain and tasked his young reporter with finding it.

Levy’s old-school style sleuthing (pre-Google) and a little help from directory assistance eventually led him to one Thomas S. Harvey. Levy simply called him up  and the two agreed to meet on a Saturday afternoon in Harvey’s little office in Wichita, Kansas. Reluctantly, Harvey began to share his story. Then as if he was overtaken by pride, he revealed that the brain was right there – in that tiny little office.

Hidden behind a Styrofoam beer cooler, tucked inside an old Costa Cider box under some crumpled newspapers was a mason jar that contained unmistakable chunks of brain. Harvey confirmed the contents of the jar were the remains of Einstein’s cerebellum, cerebral cortex, and aortic vessels.

Meanwhile, neuroscientists continued to study those tiny slivers. In 1984 Berkeley neuroscientist, Dr. Marian Diamond, discovered that Dr. Einstein actually had more glial cells than the average brain. While the neurons get all of the attention for brain activity, the glial cells make it possible for the neurons to fire.

Finally, the answer! The increased number of glial cells made his neurons more powerful. Obviously, this was big news. Diamond’s work gained a lot of attention – and intense scrutiny and criticism. Without boring you with the scientific details, her groundbreaking discovery was ultimately exposed as critically flawed.

Over the next few decades, a number of other scientists would poke around Dr. Einstein’s brain. We’d learn that his frontal cortex was thinner than average but more dense with neurons. Another scientist would determine that while Einstein had more glial cells and neurons, he didn’t have much of a lateral fissure.   Also called the Sylvian fissure, this separates both the parietal lobe and the frontal lobe. Since the parietal lobe handles mathematical ability, spatial reasoning, and three-dimensional visualization, this seemed significant for the guy who envisioned a ride through space on a beam of light and translated it into the theory of relativity.

After safeguarding the brain for over 40 years, then 84-year old Harvey and author, Michael Paterniti, set out on an odd road trip to meet Evelyn, Albert’s granddaughter. From New Jersey to California, Albert’s brain sloshed around in a Tupperware container in the trunk of their rented Buick Skylark. Paterniti chronicles the bizarre excursion in his book, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain. A year later, fueled by a sense of either guilt or responsibility, Harvey quietly returned Albert’s brain to Princeton so others could study it.

Fast forward to 2013. A team of scientists in China made the most remarkable discovery yet. It turns out that beyond his abundance of glial cells and neuron-dense frontal cortex, he had a freakishly large corpus callosum. The largest nerve fiber bundle in the brain connecting the two hemispheres was thicker and larger than normal. An undersized lateral fissure combined with a oversized corpus callosum meant that Einstein’s brain was more well-connected than most. He was able to think, learn, and explore the world around him with his whole brain.

The amazing journey of Einstein’s brain has really cemented the concept of whole-brain learning and its impact on our increased capacity to learn. The difference between the best and the rest lies with those who learn how to nurture and think with the whole brain and create the conditions necessary for deeper cognition and enlightened understanding.

Einstein would probably have been very proud to know that he continues to make monumental contributions to science long after his death. As for Thomas Harvey, he never realized the full impact of his actions on that day in Princeton Hospital back in 1955. He died in 2007 at the age of 94.

Find out how “whole brain” you are with a 5-minute Whole Brain Quiz.

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people who are looking for ways to more effectively teach and learn. We deliver tailored, dynamic workshops to help organizations improve their work by learning about learning and thinking about thinking.

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