How Albert Einstein's Brain Worked

Albert Einstein, 13 months before his death. See more brain pictures. American Stock/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

­In his last years of life, Albert Einstein knew he was ill and refused operations that would save his life. He made his wishes clear: "I want to be cremated so people won't come to worship at my bones" [source: Paterniti]. Einstein died on April 18, 1955, at the age of 76 of a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurism, and he got his wish as far as his bones were concerned; his ashes were scattered in an undisclosed location. But Einstein's brain was a different matter.

During the autopsy, conducted at Princeton Hospital, a pathologist named Thomas Harvey removed Einstein's brain -- the brain that had given the world such revolutionary thoughts as E=mc², the theory of relativity, an understanding of the speed of light and the idea that led to the completion of the atomic bomb. Harvey held the brain that produced those thoughts in his hands. And then he took it.

Depending on whom you believe, Harvey either did a wonderful thing for science that day, or he's no better than a common grave robber. Einstein had participated in studies during his lifetime to ascertain what might have made his brain different, and at least one biographer claims that Einstein wished for his gray matter to be studied after death [source: Altman]. Others claim that the brain fell under the category of things Einstein wanted cremated, and there was further outrage when it was revealed that another person removed Einstein's eyeballs as a souvenir [source: Paterniti].

I­n some ways, though, Einstein got his wish. No one could come to worship at the relic of his brain, simply because no one except Harvey knew where it was. After Harvey's removal of the brain made news, he secured the permission of one of Einstein's sons to study the brain, with the results to be published in reputable journals. Harvey felt it wouldn't take very long at all to figure out what made Einstein's brain different and special -- surely the brain of such a genius would reveal its secrets quickly. But no studies appeared in the years following Einstein's death, and then Harvey himself, who, again, was merely a pathologist and not a neuroscientist, disappeared with the brain.

Follow the brain's progress on the next page.

Marian Diamond and Albert Einstein's Brain

Who needs socks when you might have more glial cells?
Who needs socks when you might have more glial cells?
Lucien Aigner/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As the story goes, when Albert Einstein was born, his mother was positively flabbergasted by her son's large and angular head [source: Hayden]. But when Einstein died, his brain was no larger than that of any other man his age. Thomas Harvey weighed it as part of the autopsy, and the organ clocked in at 2.7 pounds (1.22 kilograms) [source: Hotz]. Harvey had the brain photographed, and then the brain was sectioned into approximately 240 pieces and preserved in celloidin, a common technique in the preservation and study of brains [source: Montagne].

Harvey would go on to send small slivers of the brain to doctors and scientists around the world whose work he found intriguing. The hand-picked experts were to report their findings back to Harvey, and then the work would be published so that the world could know what went on inside the brain of a genius.

Harvey and the world were in for a long wait. Einstein's brain was of a normal size, and he appeared to have a normal number of average-size brain cells. Harvey persevered in his belief that someone would find something, and whenever a reporter tracked the man down, he would say that he was just a year or so away from publishing something. At one point, Harvey was discovered to be living in Kansas while the brain sat in a jar inside an old cider box behind a beer cooler.

Then, in 1985, Harvey finally had something to report. Dr. Marian Diamond, who worked at the University of California at Berkeley, was studying the brain plasticity of rats and had found that rats in more enriching environments had more robust brains. Specifically, the rats had more glial cells in relation to their neurons, and Diamond wanted to see if Einstein's brain would prove similar.

Glial cells cushion and provide nutrients to the much busier neurons, the brain cells that communicate with each other. In some ways, though, glial cells are like the housekeeping service for the neurons. As neurons communicate, they leave behind trash in the form of potassium ions. The potassium ions pile up outside the neurons, but that trash pile can only go so high before the neurons stop communicating, because there's just no more room for the potassium ion discharge. Glial cells clean up those potassium ions to allow the neurons to fire repeatedly. Glia also soak up other neurotransmitters that might clog the communication lines of the neurons [source: Fields].

When Diamond received her pieces of brain, she compared them against a sample group of 11 other brains. She reported that Einstein did indeed have a higher ratio of glia cells to neurons than other brains, and she hypothesized that the number of glial cells increased because of the high metabolic demand that Einstein put on his neurons [source: Burrell]. In other words, Einstein needed fantastic housekeepers because he made such a mess with all of his amazing thoughts.

­Unfortunately, other scientists thought Diamond's work was a mess as well. For one thing, glial cells continue to divide during a person's life. Though Einstein died at 76, Diamond compared his brain to a control group with an average age of 64, so it's only natural that Einstein might have had more glial cells than these younger men [source: Herskovits]. Additionally, Diamond's control group of brains came from patients at a VA Hospital; while she could say that they had died of non-neurological causes, not much else was known about these men, such as IQ score. Was Einstein being compared to dunces? Another scientist pointed out that Diamond had only provided ratios of one specific measure, while by her own account, there were 28 ways to measure these cells. Diamond admitted that she didn't report scores that didn't prove her point; the scientist claimed that if you measure enough things, you'll find something that can support or disprove any claim [source: Burrell].

Would Einstein's brai­n ever give up its secrets? Turn the page for what Thomas Harvey did next.

Unsolved Mystery: What Sandra Witelson Discovered

No word on what impact Einstein's brain had on his hairstyle.
No word on what impact Einstein's brain had on his hairstyle.
Central Press/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dr. Diamond's work had received tremendous press coverage, only to be exposed as critically flawed in execution. In 1996, a University of Alabama researcher named Britt Anderson published another study on Einstein's brain with much less hullaballoo. Anderson had discovered that Einstein's frontal cortex was much thinner than normal, but that it was more densely packed with neurons [source: Hotz]. Anderson told Thomas Harvey that a researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, had been studying whether a more tightly packed cortex might explain differences in men's and women's brains. While men's brains were bigger, women's brains had the neurons packed tightly together, which may mean they can communicate more quickly.

Harvey took the name of that researcher and sent her a one-line fax: "Would you be willing to collaborate with me on studying the brain of Albert Einstein?" [source: Hotz]. Dr. Sandra Witelson, the researcher at McMaster, answered back in the affirmative. What Witelson had going for her that other researchers did not was a large collection of brains with IQs, general health and psychiatric state accounted for. There would be no confusion about the control group, as there was with Diamond's work -- the 35 male brains used had an average IQ score of 116, slightly higher than normal (Witelson used 56 female brains for comparison as well). For decades, Witelson had been working with doctors and nurses to acquire brains for her research. She would be able to conduct the largest study of this kind.

Harvey went to Canada with the brain, and Witelson was allowed to select nearly a fifth of it for study -- more than any other researcher had been allowed before [source: Altman]. She selected pieces of the temporal and parietal lobes, and she also pored over the photographs Harvey had commissioned of the brain at the time of Einstein's death. She noticed that Einstein's Sylvian fissure was largely absent. The Sylvian fissure separates the parietal lobe into two distinct compartments, and without this dividing line, Einstein's parietal lobe was 15 percent wider than the average brain [source: Witelson et al.].

Significantly, the parietal lobe is responsible for skills such as mathematical ability, spatial reasoning and three-dimensional visualization. This seemed to fit in perfectly with how Einstein described his own thought process: "Words do not seem to play any roles," he once said. "[There are] more or less clear images" [source: Wilson]. The man who figured out the theory of relativity by imagining a ride on a light beam through space saw his ideas in pictures and then found the language to describe them [source: Lemonick].

Witelson hypothesizes that the lack of a Sylvian fissure may have allowed the brain cells to crowd in closer to one another, which in turn enabled them to communicate much faster than normal. This brain structure may also have had something to do with Einstein's delayed speech development, which raises questions about whether it's helpful to know this sort of information about yourself. If Einstein had known that his brain was different, maybe even flawed, would he have pursued academics?

At this point, scientists don't know enough about how the brain works to know if Witelson's work is accurate, though it's the going theory at the moment. For all visible purposes, Einstein's brain seems perfectly normal, if not a little damaged, with nothing that would immediately indicate any great genius. We may not know anything until there's another equivalent genius brain to study; perhaps Einstein can't be compared to average brains.

Harvey never gave up on his belief that the brain would reveal something special. Near the end of his life, after carting the brain around the country, he returned to the place from which he had taken it: Princeton Hospital. He gave the brain to the man who had his old pathology job; writer Michael Paterniti, who accompanied Harvey on one cross-country trip with the brain, hypothesized in the book "Driving With Mr. Albert" that Harvey picked someone who represented a sort of reincarnation of Harvey himself, something that the pathologist in question also acknowledges. "Well then, he's free now," the man told Paterniti of Harvey's choice, "and I'm shackled" [source: Paterniti]. If Einstein's brain ever truly reveals its secrets, Harvey won't be here to see it; he died in 2007 at the age of 94. Einstein and the mystery of his brain, however, live on.

For many more answers to questions about the brain you never thought to ask, see the links to articles on the next page.


10 Ways Your Memory Is Completely Inaccurate

10 Ways Your Memory Is Completely Inaccurate

Your memory isn't as trustworthy as you think. Learn 10 ways your memory is completely inaccurate at HowStuffWorks.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Altman, Lawrence K. "So, Is This Why Einstein Was So Brilliant?" New York Times. June 18, 1999. (Oct. 6, 2008)
  • Burrell, Brian. "Postcards from the Brain Museum. Excerpted at NPR. April 18, 2005. (Oct. 6, 2008)
  • Fields, R. Douglas. "Mysterious Cells Found in the Brain of a Genius." Odyssey. October 2004.
  • Hayden, Thomas. "The Inner Einstein." U.S. News and World Report. Dec. 9, 2002.
  • Herskovits, A. Zara. "A Brief History of Einstein's Brain." Einstein Quarterly Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2000.
  • Hotz, Robert Lee. "Deep, Dark Secrets of His and Her Brains." Los Angeles Times. June 16, 2005. (Oct. 6, 2008),0,5806592,full.story
  • Lemonick, Michael D. "Was Einstein's Brain Built for Brilliance?" Time. June 28, 1999. (Oct. 6, 2008),9171,991347,00.html
  • Levy, Steven. "The Roots of Genius?" Newsweek. June 28, 1999.
  • Montagne, Renee. "Interview: Brian Burrell discusses the fate of Albert Einstein's brain and others in his book 'Postcards from the Brain Museum'." NPR. April 18, 2005.
  • "Obituaries." West Windsor and Plainsboro News." April 13, 2007. (Oct. 6, 2008)
  • Paterniti, Michael. "Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain." Delta. 2000.
  • Roberts, Siobhan. "A Hands-On Approach to Studying the Brain, Even Einstein's." New York Times. Nov. 14, 2006. (Oct. 6, 2008)
  • ­­Wilson, Jim. "Unlocking Einstein's Brain." Popular Mechanics. November 1999.
  • Witelson, Sandra F., Debra L. Kigar, Thomas Harvey. "The exceptional brain of Albert Einstein." The Lancet. June 19, 1999. (Oct. 6, 2008)