Skip to main content

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 chitchat 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 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 usually 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 typically 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 more prominent and had this unusual feature.

Now it so happens that this part of the brain is known to be important in visuospatial 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 in no small 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 some speculate that Einstein's genius lay in communication from aliens. Some have asked whether he was an alien!  I'd instead think that there really wasn't that much extraordinary in Einstein's ability; a genius, yes, but undoubtedly 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.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The lion and the wildebeest

Birds flock, fish school, bees swarm, but social being is more than simply sticking together.  Social groups enable specialisation and a sharing of abilities, and enhances ability, learning and creating new tricks. The more a group works together, the more effective they become as a team.  Chimpanzees learn from each other how to use stones to crack nuts, or sticks to get termites.  All around us we see cooperation and learning in nature.  Nature is inherently creative.  Pulling together becomes a rallying cry during a crisis.  We have heard it throughout the coronavirus pandemic.  "We are all in this together", a mantra that encourages people to adopt a common strategy. In an era of 'self-interest' and 'survival of the fittest,'  and 'selfish gene', we lose sight of the obvious conclusion from the evidence all around us.   Sticking together is more often the better approach.  This is valid for the lion as it is also for the wildebeest.   We don't

Noise pollution puts nature at risk

 "I just want a bit of peace and quiet!" Let's get away from all the hustle and bustle; the sound of endless traffic on the roads, of the trains on the railway, and the planes in the sky; the incessant drone; the noise. We live in a world of man-made noise; screeching, bellowing, on-and-on in an unmelodious cacophony.  This constant background noise has now become a significant health hazard.   With average background levels of 60 decibels, those who live in cities are often exposed to noise over 85 decibels, enough to cause significant hearing loss over time.  It causes stress, high blood pressure, headache and loss of sleep and poor health and well-being.   In nature, noise has content and significance.  From the roar of the lion, the laughing of a hyena,  communication is essential for life; as the warning of danger, for bonding as a group or a pair, finding a mate, or for establishing a position in a hierarchy - chattering works.  Staying in touch is vital to working

Ian Duncan-Smith says he wants to make those on benefits 'better people'!

By any account, the government's austerity strategy is utilitarian. It justifies its approach by the presumed potential ends. It's objective is to cut the deficit, but it has also adopted another objective which is specifically targeted. It seeks to drive people off benefits and 'back to work'.  The two together are toxic to the poorest in society. Those least able to cope are the most affected by the cuts in benefits and the loss of services. It is the coupling of these two strategic aims that make their policies ethically questionable. For, by combining the two, slashing the value of benefits to make budget savings while also changing the benefits system, the highest burden falls on a specific group, those dependent on benefits. For the greater good of the majority, a minority group, those on benefits, are being sacrificed; sacrificed on the altar of austerity. And they are being sacrificed in part so that others may be spared. Utilitarian ethics considers the ba