The world has never stopped thinking about Albert Einstein, arguably one of the century's greatest minds. Now, scientists who have reexamined his brain have come up with a theory of why Einstein, whose brain was preserved after he died in 1955, was capable of such prodigious mental feats as conceiving the theory of relativity and other laws of physics.
The finding, appearing in tomorrow's issue of The Lancet, is based on measurements showing that Einstein's parietal lobes, which sit roughly behind the ears on both sides of the brain, are unusually large. As a result, his brain is about 15% wider than that of most people and, rather than being egg-shaped, it's almost perfectly round. The work was done by a team led by neuroscientist Sandra Witelson of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, which maintains a "brain bank" of about 100 normal people. Three years ago, Witelson was contacted by the "curator" of Einstein's brain, former Princeton University pathologist Thomas Harvey, who asked her if she was interested in examining the brain.
Witelson focused on these structures because modern imaging techniques have recently confirmed the parietal lobes as being responsible for visual and three-dimensional representation and mathematical reasoning. The team's findings suggest that "bigger is better," she says: "The larger the region devoted to a specific cognitive function, the better you are at that task." What's more, the lower part of these structures, the inferior parietal lobules, are not divided by a major cleft in Einstein's brain, an anatomic feature Witelson has not seen in any of her 91 control brains, nor in more than 100 brains she looked up in various brain atlases. The absence of a cleft, she hypothesizes, "might have allowed for his brilliance and his ability to put spatial representations into mathematical concepts" by allowing his axons to connect nerve cells in different ways.
The findings make perfect sense to zoologist David Ankney of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. It's "a right way for localizing higher cognitive functions," he says, "which may one day help us to fully understand human intelligence and why some people are so much better at certain things than others." The next step, Witelson says, is to use state-of-the-art imaging techniques to scan brilliant people in search for other peculiarities.