Albert Einstein, the Fissure King?

In the Wall Street Journal, my friend Robert Lee Hotz returns to the Twilight Zone of neuroscience, the postmortem anatomy of illustrious gray matter, and its preeminent subject, Albert Einstein:

By studying photographs of Einstein's brain taken at his death in 1955, paleoanthropologist Dean Falk at Florida State University identified a dozen subtle variations in its surface that may have heightened his ability to see physics in a new way. Her research suggests how the brain shaped the inner life of the 20th century's most famous mind.

"Einstein's brain is really unusual," says Dr. Falk. "On the surface at least, it looks different than others. It's suggestive."

Dr. Falk was studying old images, of course, and not the slides circulated by the eccentric Princeton, NJ pathologist Thomas Harvey, who retained Einstein's brain before the body was cremated and held it for decades, often mailing sections to researchers without advance notice. Some of  these found unusual features they believed might help account for Einstein's greatness. Dr. Falk sees in the photographs an unusual configuration of a feature of the brain called the Sylvian Fissure.

Reports of atypical anatomy may mean less than they seem. Hotz reports a number of notable false starts with brains of famous subjects including Vladimir Lenin. I have also read studies of both human and veterinary surgery by scholars including Stefan Hirschauer and Dawn Woodgate,  who note how professionals learn to deal with the great variation of the bodies of individuals from the specimens presented in textbooks and atlases.

Scientific tools have made typicality a more challenging subject than ever. In her acclaimed Human Brain Anatomy in Computerized Images, Hanna Damasio cites the tension between "anatomic constants and individual variation" and notes:

The issue of anatomic uniqueness has gained importance because of the
spectacular developments in neuroimaging technologies.

Returning to the studies by Falk and others described by Hotz, my friend and colleague Samuel Wang, coauthor of Welcome to Your Brain, comments in an e-mail:

For now, nobody knows the relationship between surface contours and cognitive
function, and there probably isn't one.

Alice Calaprice, another friend and the editor of The New Quotable Einstein, also is not sure Einstein would have encouraged the investigations. He did not believe in the cult of his genius, she writes.

It's sad, then, that Einstein's mental remains may not rest in peace for a long time, but international science, too, appears to need its holy relics.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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