60 Years Later and the Genius Lives On
Indisputably, Albert Einstein was a genius. In fact, his intellectual achievements and contributions to modern science have made his name synonymous with the word. So what enables a man who was described by his earliest teachers as "a poor student" and "mentally handicapped" 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. The young Dr. Harvey found himself alone in the morgue staring at the operating system of one of the most amazing minds in history. In that moment, he decided that the world could not - would not - stop learning from this man.
Harvey left the office that day carrying Einstein's brain in his duffle bag. We can debate all day long about whether Harvey was a hero, opportunist, or criminal, but eventually he came clean and got permission from Einstein’s son 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 scientific dream team 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 out what happened to it.
Levy’s old-school investigative reporting (think of a call to directory assistance instead of a Google search) eventually led him to one Thomas S. Harvey located in Wichita, Kansas. Levy simply called him up and the two agreed to meet on a Saturday afternoon in Harvey’s little office. Reluctantly, Harvey began to share his story. Then, perhaps overtaken by pride, he couldn't help himself and 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 all the scientific details, her groundbreaking discovery was ultimately exposed as critically flawed.
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. 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, 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 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 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's continued to make significant 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.
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