Indisputably, Albert Einstein was one of the greatest scientific minds in history. So what was it about his brain that enabled him to understand space, time, mass, and energy in a way that would change the world? Thanks to the pathologist that performed his autopsy and removed his brain without the consent of his family, 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. We can debate all day long about whether Harvey was an opportunist or a criminal, but eventually Einstein’s son gave him permission 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 scientists around the world and waited for them to report back with their findings. As he waited for the elite fraternity of his hand picked experts to unlock the secrets of this great mind, Harvey kept the remainder of Einstein’s brain tucked safely away in two mason jars.
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 out what happened to it. A few calls to directory assistance (remember that?) produced the Dr. Harvey Levy was looking for. He simply called him up and asked to meet one Saturday afternoon in Harvey’s little Wichita, Kansas office.
Harvey seemed eager to share the story of his most epic autopsy. It didn't take long for him to reveal something even more epic: Einstein's brain was right there in that 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 they 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. The increased number of glial cells made his neurons more powerful. Obviously, this was big news. Diamond’s work gained a lot of attention followed by intense scrutiny and criticism. Her groundbreaking discovery was ultimately exposed as critically flawed but the research continued.
Over the next few decades, a number of other scientists would have the opportunity to look at 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, which 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, 84-year old Harvey and writer, Michael Paterniti, set out on an odd road trip to meet Evelyn Einstein, Albert’s granddaughter. From New Jersey to California, Albert’s brain sloshed around in a Tupperware container in the trunk of a 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.
This discovery cemented the concept of whole-brain learning and its impact on our capacity to learn.
The difference between the best and the rest may lie in the ability to nurture and think with the whole brain and create the conditions necessary for deeper cognition and enlightened understanding. Einstein would be 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.