Who Cares About Einstein’s Brain?

It’s how your brain works, not how it looks that defines your potential.

Posted Nov 25, 2012

You are probably aware of this guy named Albert Einstein. Pretty famous scientist, actually. Did some physics. An amazingly gifted outside the box thinker before people even used that phrase. A recent article described him as one “one of the most brilliant men who ever lived”. And clearly he was.

Which is why a recent study “The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs” by Falk and colleagues at Florida State University published in the journal “Brain” generated so much media interest. Unfortunately, the spin that has come out of many of the headlines (but not from the actual authors of the study) related to this coverage has been mostly absurd. Too much has been made about the dubious quirks in the anatomy of Einstein’s brain and his obvious genius.

Which begs the question, is brain anatomy really relevant?

Physiology (how it works) of many body systems can be predicted from anatomy (how it looks). In other words, function comes from form. Your cardiovascular system has a big muscular pump in the form of the heart that receives and pushes blood all around the body. Just by taking a good look at the anatomy of the heart, the specialized valves, the different chambers, along with all the piping coming in and out, allows a reasonable estimate of what it does and how it does it.

The nervous system is not as straightforward. Particularly when we’re talking about the brain. A real human brain contains about 100 billion neurons (the cells of the nervous system). Those 100 billion neurons could have approximately 5000 synaptic connections from other neurons. That’s a ballpark of ~100 trillion connections. A pretty big number. Far bigger than the estimated number of galaxies in the universe. Which is somewhere between 200 to 500 billion, in case you’re counting.

This is part of what allows the nervous system to present with a much broader scope. Not because the anatomy is impenetrable or that much more complicated within different areas of the brain. It is certainly complex, but the general features of the connections from those 100 billion neurons form into tracts and bands of connections within the brain that can be reasonably identified (mostly).

The real issue with the nervous system comes from the fact that the function—the behaviour—of the brain cannot be directly predicted from anatomy. Enter those 100 trillion connections. The key thing is that network activity in the brain emerges from the activity of the collections of synapses that are active at any given time. And this is a constantly shifting landscape of network activity.

An overly simple approximation is to think about a boat that is rising and falling on the swells of ocean waves. Really big rollers. As you sit in your boat and look out around you, other boats are rising and falling. At any given moment you see different boats. Those boats all represent active connections between neurons that are expressed when you can see them and silenced when you cannot. To complete the metaphor, multiply by many trillions.

This is what makes deciphering brain function from anatomy such a daunting task—and impossible—task. All you see is the ocean and not the network function. This can only be revealed by brain imaging techniques--functional neuroimaging like fMRI, and PET scans--that measure physiology along with anatomy. It cannot be determined by anatomy no matter the resolution. Unfortunately this kind of analysis can only be done prospectively and is not open to forensic analysis. We shall never know about the physiology—the real function—of Einstein’s brain.

This kind of fascination with Einstein’s brain is, of course perfectly understandable. It easily captures the imagination. But it does a real disservice to improved understanding of neuroscience by perpetuating stereotypes on brain function that ought to have disappeared along with phrenology.

Phrenology is a pseudoscience introduced as real science by German physician Franz Joseph Gall at the end of the 19th century. The basic tenant of phrenology draws on real science. This is the idea that there is a certain regional organization within the brain. This means that certain areas include neurons arranged in networks for specialized function. Like motor planning, sensation, vision, hearing and so on. 

It all went sadly wrong with phrenology when the principal way to evaluate brain anatomy became one of measuring bumps on the skull! At first glance, though, it’s easy to see why people endorsed this. It sounds like it makes sense.

The line of thinking was something like this. Brain anatomy does have something to do with brain function. The brain is inside the skull. The skull must be shaped a little bit by the brain. Then bumps on the skull have something to do with anatomy of the brain. Thus bumps on the skull can tell us about different aspects of personality, intellect, etc.

All of which, of course, is total nonsense. Which is why phrenology was relegated to the bin of pseudoscience long ago. By the way, for an excellent description of the fallacy of phrenology along with a debunking of the “IQ test”, please see “The Mismeasure of Man” by the late Stephen Jay Gould.

This illustrates a cardinal sin of science—assuming causality with correlation. Just because there is a relationship between something does not mean one thing caused the other.

To answer the question posed as the title of this post, I hope no one cares about Einstein’s brain. By this I mean his brain anatomy. I am not sure why we should care about his brain anatomy. At least not in the way headlines like "Einstein's Brain Reveals Clues to Genius" or "Uncommon features of Einstein’s brain might explain his remarkable cognitive abilities" would imply.

Instead we should all care very much about his intellect, his insight, his ability to think deeply about extremely complex issues. These are things to strive for. Not incidental anatomy. None of this can be predicted from the anatomy of Einstein’s brain or the brain of anyone else.

Really what I am saying is, it’s all relative. And yes, I have been waiting to write that this whole time. Relative abilities cannot be extracted simply from anatomy. When it comes to the brain, form doesn’t always dictate function.

The real importance of our brains lies in their roles as functional processors, not anatomical constructs. Our real potential as humans—whether scientific geniuses or just averages Joans and Joes—comes from our ability to learn, experience the world and modify our brains through our experiences.

© E. Paul Zehr, 2012