Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Mr Einstein's brain

It wouldn't be Christmas without stories appearing about Einstein's brain. It is a recurring theme; the intellectual man's chit chat about the weather. A group of scientists are studying the pickled brain of Einstein to see if they can 'discover' what was exceptional about it; something that could have given him his extraordinary intellect. I cannot think of a more potentially fruitless scientific endeavour.

Even supposing they did find something odd about his brain, it is difficult to see how they could now associate this with his intelligence. They might find, for example, that a particular part of his brain was proportionately large or small, but to conclude that this somehow gave him extraordinary powers of understanding would remain pure speculation. None of this is particularly new. Indeed, an odd feature has already been found in Albert Einstein's brain.

Back in 1999 it was reported in The Lancet that a unique morphological feature had been found in Einstein's brain. The surface of our brains is folded into bumps and grooves; a bump is called a 'gyrus', a groove is a 'sulcus' or fissure. These hills and valleys of the brain can be clearly identified and given names, and it was in these hills and valleys that an unusual feature had been found in the lateral, or parietal surface of each hemisphere.

Two grooves that are normally distinct were joined together. In anatomical language, the posterior ascending branch of one groove called the Sylvian fissure, was found to be joined with another, the postcentral sulcus. Two valleys, as it were, were merged rather than separate as found in most human brains. The feature that  would normally separate them, the parietal operculum, was missing.  But for this all other aspects of the brain appeared within normal limits in weight and size. The parietal lobe was bigger and had this unusual feature.

Now it so happens that this part of the brain is known to be important in visuospacial cognition, or three dimensional calculation, mathematical thought and imagery of movement. But what is more intriguing is that these are attributes Einstein himself associated with his scientific thinking.

"The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be "voluntarily" reproduced and combined."  

Einstein it seems worked in images rather than words.

The authors of the report rightly add a caveat that the study cannot conclude that this provides us with a 'neuroanatomical substrate for intelligence'.  Indeed, it is difficult to see how it could be demonstrated other than using modern techniques of MRI to visualise the function of the brain during known tasks. It may say little more than the fact that anatomy is associated with ability. Certain kinds of intellectual ability may be influenced by anatomical features in the brain. Intellect covers a host of facets.

Most of these would have little or no correlation with gross anatomy. My computer is physically similar to any other of its type, but it is programmed to do different things. Any differences in how these programmes work is determined by their logic.  But how fast it works and with what kinds of elements depends to a large extent on bits of its 'anatomy' such as the sound card or video card, or on its storage space and how this is organised.

I understand that there are some who speculate that Einstein's genius lay in communication from aliens. Some have asked whether he was an alien!  I'd rather think that there really wasn't that much extraordinary in Einstein's ability; a genius, yes, but certainly human. His thinking wasn't magic. It was unique in the sense that he was Albert Einstein. And you can make what you want of that.

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