I stumbled across a little blurb today in ScienceNow about a new study by Dean Falk (University of Michigan PhD, 1976!) about Einstein’s brain. Luckily, back in good olde 1955, when urban money was moving to suburbs and Marty McFly was trying not to screw up the future, people realized that the recently-late Einstein was a genius whose brain needed to be preserved. Fun facts that I found out:
Einstein’s brain was only 1230 cc. The average for modern people is around 1400 (Holloway 2000). Here’s a list of ancient Homo fossils, from Holloway (2000) and some others, whose cranial capacities are about the same as or greater than Einstein’s:
Zhoukoudian X (Chinese H. erectus, ~1225 cc), Ngandong 10 (Javanese H. erectus, ~1231 cc); Kabwe, LH 18, Eyasi, Saldanha, BOU-VP 16/1 (African “archaic” Homo sapiens); Narmada, Jinniushan, Yinkou (Asian “archaic” Homo sapiens); Vertesszolos 2, Reilingen, Steinheim, Swanscombge, Fontachevade, Ehringsdorf, Biache, Petralona, Atapuerca 4 (European “archaic” Homo sapiens); and most Neandertals.
This shows that, while brain size was important in the evolution of human cognition, it is not everything. I mean, how many of these hominins could begin to fathom something like special relativity? Of course, back in the Paleolithic, when life was hard and one has to worry about how to obtain food, ward off predators and persist in some sort of society, who had time for such things? On the other hand, I’m a modern human–I have no idea how large my brain is–but I can barely wrap my mind around most things in physics. So it seems that human cognition–even genius-level, such as Einstein’s–is founded in biology, but also culture and environment.
The article also suggests to me that no one really knows how the brain works. Yes, the parietal regions are associated with maths and such, and Einstein had relatively large parietal lobes. But how and why do one person’s parietal lobes confer greater math capabilities than another? (If the parietal lobes relate to mathematical ability, I might lack these)
The article also tells that Falk found a “knob-like structure” in the motor cortex, and that such “knobs” have also been associated with musical abilities. I’m not a neuroscientist, and I don’t know what these ‘knobs’ are. But it sounds like scientists kind of know what these do, since they see these structures more in people who are notable for a given talent (math, music, etc) But are these inherent in the brain and allow people these special abilities, or are they more environmental in origin, arising from certain experiences and exposures? More importantly, what do these do?! Falk also found other brain abnormalities, “that she speculates might somehow be related to Einstein’s superior ability to conceptualize physics problems.” This may well be the case, but it is still unclear why this should be so.
So I think this study is great, because it can provide neuroscientists with bases for future research on brain function and anatomy. At the same time, it underscores the fact that as smart as we humans are, we don’t yet understand how or why we are so special.
Holloway, R.L. 2000. Brain. In: Delson et al, eds. Encyclopedia of Human Evolution and Prehistory. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. p 141-149.