Einstein’s Brain: This is a Brain I Would Not Want to Have

When I mentioned to friend of mine that small brained pygmies are – bluntly put – smarter that Neanderthals ever were, her response was, “Well of course, Einstein was short and I’m sure his brain wasn’t all that big.” Her assumption was that Einstein’s brain is somehow the gold standard of intelligence. This is nothing new. Soon after his death, Einstein’s relatives agreed to have his brain removed for study. It was eventually preserved in to 240 slices, most of which were eventually lost.[1] However in 2012, hundreds of photographic slides of the slices were used to reconstruct a model of his brain. It was found that it had some uncommon structures like unusual folding. The researchers speculated may have been related to his childhood training on the violin or his “remarkable powers of non-verbal visuospatial (sic) processing.”[2] Yet no one hypothesized if any of these noteworthy structures related to his dishonest philandering or his inability to emotionally connect with his family.

In 2012, historian Walter Isaacson published a biography of Einstein, documenting his poor treatment of women, which like formulating equations, is also a function of the brain.[3] Rather than simply leaving his first wife, the physicist Mileva Maric, Einstein submitted to her a written list of eight numbered “conditions” she would have to obey to keep him from divorcing her. These included directives that she bring him “three meals regularly in my room,” (his italics) and that he keep his “bedroom and study neat, and especially that my desk is left neat for my use only.” He told her not to expect him to either sit with her, or accompany her outside of the house. She was required to stop talking to him when he requested it.[4] After they divorced and he moved to America, he never again saw her or his youngest son, Eduard who was institutionalized in a mental hospital due to bi-polar disorder. Einstein later married his cousin, with whom he had been sleeping during his first marriage. Like his first wife, he frequently cheated on her.[5] His older son, Hans, became a successful engineer in the United States. It was rumored that Han’s adopted daughter, Evelyn was actually Albert’s illegitimate child, but no one including her was able to document it.[6] Such was Einstein’s poor reputation.

Contrast Einstein with a much less well-known figure who lived in an isolated region of central Africa largely untouched by civilization. His English moniker was “Freddy,” and he was totally illiterate having little notion of what a book was even for.[7] As the leader of his community, Freddy’s main responsibility was to hunt and direct the patrols who guided the boundaries of their territory. In his society, there was always the fully justified fear that they would be attacked and killed by their neighbors with whom they were in a near constant state of war. Freddy was no pacifist, and likely had blood on his hands from past battles. Nonetheless, when a toddler in Freddy’s band became orphaned and no one else had the means to raise him, Freddy, who had no wife, adopted him. This caring action of a voluntary single-parent could be called courageous, but also foolhardy since fatherhood would distract Freddy from his extremely important duties. In a sense, Freddy was putting all his kinfolk at risk just to save one of them, and a rather unproductive one at that. Clearly, Freddy has sense of dedication, responsibility, and personal integrity which Einstein never possessed.

If you had to be genetically altered to have a brain like either Einstein’s or Freddy’s, whose would you choose? It is not an easy question to answer, but I would lean toward Freddy even though Einstein was a celebrated genius and Freddy was a chimpanzee. Freddy’s story was recorded in a nature documentary produced by the Disney film studios in 2012.[8] Even if scholars could come to a crystal clear understanding of race and the relationship of brain size to intelligence, we would still have to figure out what intelligence is, or how much it really matters. Einstein was a wiz at theoretical physics. But in other very significant ways, he was an idiot, whose brain structure might well show signs of such idiocy. What if he had been born 50 years earlier when the field of physics was not yet asking the sort of complex questions his mind was able to answer? He might have been just another person who never realized his ultimate intellectual potential, in other words a normal human being. If Da Vinci had by chance gone blind through a disease as a boy, he would not have been a great painter. Where would the violin prodigy Mozart have been if as an infant, a horse’s hoof had accidentally crushed his hand? It is not just the brain that is responsible for intelligence. To focus on it exclusively is to ignore an organism as a whole entity. People are not isolated units, but an interactive collection of interdependent organs who also interact with the world around them.

My brain is probably larger than Einstein’s. I have a large hat size. I am tall which is not unexpected given that I am mostly of German and British heritage, two tall nations, and also a bit Dutch. The Dutch are generally regarded as the tallest people in the world followed by the Massai people of Kenya. Why these disparate groups are tall is not known. It may be due to genetics, diet, geography, a combination of the three, or something else all-together. Nevertheless, my brain is still larger than most of the people reading this blog. And yet, most of the people who read this blog can read faster than I can. This is because I am dyslexic and read slowly. I function perfectly well, although I cannot spell, read time on a circular clock, or tell my right from my left. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I can do all those things, but I do them with some effort. I must use spell check when I type, and that helps me when I misspell words like “the,” which I periodically write as t-e-h. One of my most annoying problems is that I spell trail as trial, which in my profession as an author of recreational trail plans, happens all the time. I often miss that mistake. Sometimes when I do catch it, I correct it, or at least I try to, because when I attempt to correct it, I sometimes type in the wrong word yet again. At my job, I always have someone else proof my work, even simple form letters.

Undeniably, my large northern European male brain does not work as well as that of the majority of the world people, who are female and shorter than me. Most people are not dyslexic, and their small brains can do things my big brain cannot. If you ask them which side is their left side, they will immediately point to the left. If you ask me that question, I will pause and think. I will then remind myself that when I am driving, it is easy to make a right turn, but left turns are more difficult because you have to cross traffic. That is why there are “no left turn signs” set up along roadways. Thus, I have trained myself to remember that turning my car to the side of the road that has oncoming traffic is a left turn. This is how I know what side of my body is the left side. It also explains why I will never get behind the wheel in Britain. As a child I trained myself to recall the hand I use to write my name (the right side), but for some reason the traffic-based reference works better for me now.

One might say my big brain grants me no great benefit, since its dyslexic structure hampers its proper function. After all, every time I must consider which side is the left side, I go through a thought exercise using memory and imagination. And yet, in a way I am like a woman with no arms who must adapt by training the muscles in her feet, or a blind man whose brain becomes especially good at processing sound. Some studies indicate that dyslexics have an improved ability to see things in their peripheral vision. This rings true to me because as a teenager I studied in the bathtub, fully clothed with no water in it. To this day, when I edit text I write, I place the copy on the floor in the middle of an empty spot on the carpet. I can only focus on written words when all the objects in my peripheral vision are removed. So, is my brain worse than most other people’s, or just less conventional? If we were Cro-Magnons living in a cave, would their brains better help us to hunt and gather fruits, or mine since I might better see birds or hanging grapes in my peripheral vision? Maybe our band of cave-dwellers would prosper by having both types of brains, or just one brain like mine. Or maybe my brain is just random fluke, like those people (including one of my cousins), who was born with one misshapen double earlobe the doctors easily corrected when he was still an infant.

But if we all had brains like Einstein’s I think we would be in trouble. When it comes to listing good brains to have, I put his way at the bottom.

[1] Nick Collin’s, “Einstein’s brain ‘exceptionally complicated,’” The Telegraph (UK), (November 27, 2012), www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9707090/Einsteins-brain-exceptionally-complicated.html.

[2] Melissa Healy, “Einstein’s brain: Even on the surface, extraordinary,” Los Angelis Times, (November 28, 2012), articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/28/news/la-heb-einsteins-brain-extraordinary-20121127

[3] Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007).

[4] Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, pp. 186-187; and Deborah Arthurs, “Was Einstein the world’s worst husband? Wife ordered to keep room tidy, serve three meals a day – but expect NO affection… and she must stop talking when he demands it,” The Daily Mail, (April 23, 2012), www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2133922/Was-Einstein-worlds-worst-husband-Wife-ordered-room-tidy-serve-meals-day–expect-NO-affection–stop-talking-demands-it.html#ixzz2SMIESo88

[5] Arthurs, “Was Einstein the world’s worst husband?”

[6] Douglas Martin, “Evelyn Einstein Dies at 70; Shaped by a Link to Fame,” The New York Times, (April 18, 2011), www.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/us/19einstein.html?_r=1&

[7] See the following footnote.

[8] Chimpanzee, Alastair Fothergill and mark Linfield, directors, Tim Allen, narrator, (Disneynature, 2012), Film

One thought on “Einstein’s Brain: This is a Brain I Would Not Want to Have

  1. The Bushmen of the Kalahari were hunter gatherers just like Cromagnons. Both groups produced some astoundingly good art. I think hunter gatherers have brains that make them feel bound to others in the group even if they are not kin. This symbolic rather than genetic community feeling is something humans are selected to value very highly.

    Being known as a bad person is as dangerous as physical injury, and we perceive it as such; shown by the pain which results from social rejection (withdrawal of symbolic community membership) by members of one’s non-kin peer group. Pulling our weight in a symbolic community means espousing the dominant community concern.

    I think social behaviour occurs as out brain interacts with the social environment. I do not think you can generalise about a particular mindset being a good one to have, because mentally normal humans are driven to fit into their society by espousing the dominant community concern. We don’t live in a society where men can get on by boasting about their own or their group’s brainpower, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about peoples personal qualities when they don’t.

    I suppose the ideal is being a rock star who is known as a really good hearted guy, a bit like Freddie. But that is only possible if you are living in a culture where extremely nice guys finish first.

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