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What Studying Einstein’s Brain Can And Can’t Tell Us

New pictures are giving scientists a better idea of just what made Einstein's brain so unique - but there's only so much photographs of a lump of tissue can tell us

We’re obsessed with Einstein. The genius physicist’s wacky face graces mugs, t-shirts and bags and pops up seemingly everywhere else we turn. But under that mop of hair was one of the greatest brains of all time, and new pictures are giving scientists a better idea of just what made Einstein’s brain so unique.

Here’s what we knew about Einstein’s brain before these photos were re-examined, via Nature:

A study done in 1985 showed that two parts of his brain contained an unusually large number of non-neuronal cells called glia for every neuron. And one published more than a decade later showed that the parietal lobe lacks a furrow and a structure called the operculum. The missing furrow may have enhanced the connections in this region, which is thought to be involved in visuo-spatial functions and mathematical skills such as arithmetic.

Today, looking again at the photographs, researcher Dean Falk has pointed out a few other unique characteristics:

The most striking observation, says Falk, was “the complexity and pattern of convolutions on certain parts of Einstein’s cerebral cortex”, especially in the prefrontal cortex, and also parietal lobes and visual cortex.

Since we love Einstein so much, his brain is now an app. And these images are prompting scientists to ponder just whether the differences in Einstein’s noggin hold the key to his genius. Science Magazine writes:

“In each lobe,” including the frontal, parietal, and occipital lobes, “there are regions that are exceptionally complicated in their convolutions,” Falk says. As for the enlarged regions linked to the face and tongue, Falk thinks that this might relate to Einstein’s famous quote that his thinking was often “muscular” rather than in words. Although this comment is usually interpreted as a metaphor for his subjective experiences as he thought about the universe, “it may be that he used his motor cortex in extraordinary ways” connected to abstract conceptualization, Falk says. Albert Galaburda, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, says that “what’s great about this paper is that it puts down … the entire anatomy of Einstein’s brain in great detail.”

But there’s only so much we can really learn about genius by looking at Einstein’s brain. There is no way to point to a place in the brain and say, “Aha, here is where the genius lies.” Here’s Science Magazine again:

Einstein’s genius, Galaburda says, was probably due to “some combination of a special brain and the environment he lived in.” And he suggests that researchers now attempt to compare Einstein’s brain with that of other talented physicists to see if the brain’s features were unique to Einstein himself or are also seen in other scientists.

Remember, these are simply photographs of the outside of Einstein’s brain. There is only so much one can tell from them. And since there aren’t many other mega-geniuses to compare his brain to, it’s hard to make any big conclusions.

More from Smithsonian.com:

New iPad App Lets You Noodle Around Einstein’s Noggin
Albert Einstein Lives On

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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