Dr. Albert Einstein died on 18 April 1955 at Princeton Hospital in Trenton, New Jersey. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated without ceremony on the same day, and his ashes scattered at an undisclosed location. But the body that arrived at the cremation oven was not quite complete—it was lacking its brain.
That’s because Einstein’s brain was sitting in a jar of formaldehyde in Dr. Thomas Harvey’s office. Dr. Harvey was the pathologist who performed Einstein’s autopsy, and while doing so, he removed and kept the brain for his own study. Some say that Einstein volunteered his brain for research, but the executor of his estate denies this, saying that it was Einstein’s son Hans who made the decision to have it preserved. But the press soon learned that Einstein’s brain had been set aside for study, and antagonized Einstein’s family with unwanted attention.
Dr. Harvey became very protective of the brain, and divided it into 240 sections, which he kept in jars at his house. Despite being in possession of the organ for years, he never published any findings, saying that he was unable to find anything unusual about it. But over the years he gave away samples of the brain to various researchers, and one such recipient, Dr. Marian Diamond from UC Berkeley, studied the brain and discovered some interesting features.
A brain’s network of neurons are fed and nourished by cells called glial cells. Dr. Diamond compared the percentage of glial cells in Einstein’s brain to that of other men who died at the age he did, and found that his contained about 73% more than the average. This indicated that Einstein’s neurons probably had a greater metabolic need; they needed and used more energy.
For years, Dr. Harvey toted the rest of the brain with him every time he relocated, until in 1996 when he moved back to New Jersey. There, Dr. Harvey surrendered the remaining pieces of Einstein’s brain to Dr. Elliot Krauss, the chief pathologist at Princeton Hospital. Soon the brain was subjected to some serious scientific scrutiny. Scientists from McMaster University were given access to it, and they discovered that Einstein’s brain was remarkable in several other ways.
The researchers found that Einstein’s brain was 15% wider than average, due to the fact that the inferior parietal regions on both hemispheres were much more developed than most. This would have given Einstein some powerful visualization skills, given that these regions of the brain are largely responsible for visuospatial cognition, mathematical thought, and imagery of movement. They also found that Einstein’s brain lacked the groove which usually runs through part of this area, which suggests that the neurons might have been able to work together more easily given their proximity.
During his life, Einstein was quick to downplay his own intellect, being heard to remark, “The contrast between the popular assessment of my powers … and the reality is simply grotesque.” On another occasion, he said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.” But his achievements during his life and the examination of his brain after his death have indicated that he possessed a mind capable of great leaps of insight and visualization.
These days, Einstein’s brain spends most of its time sitting in jars of formaldehyde at Princeton Hospital, no doubt waiting to unlock even more insight into the mysterious construction of a genius mind. “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious,” Albert Einstein once said. “It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”