Researchers: Nothing Special About Einstein's Brain

There had to be something anatomically different about Einstein's brain that made him so smart, right? A new study says no, not true. NPR's Scott Simon talks with Terence Hines of Pace University.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Albert Einstein had an enviable mind. So much, in fact, that when he died in Princeton's hospital, the pathologist on-call stole his brain. Dr. Einstein had asked for his brain to be cremated along with the rest of him, but eventually, it wound up in slices in various research labs. And over the years, scientists have claimed to have found brain ridges or cells that might shed some light on his singular human mind. But a new scientific paper says that, in fact, there was nothing special about Einstein's brain. Dr. Terence Hines wrote that paper. He's a professor of psychology at Pace University and joins us from his home in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

TERENCE HINES: Oh, I'm glad to be here.

SIMON: So what's wrong with the research that said he had a special brain?

HINES: A couple of things. One is what we call confirmation bias, and that's basically saying what we all know - that if you really want to find something, if you look for it long enough, you will. So, for example, in the papers that claim the external shape of Einstein's brain was different. They start out with a fairly vague notion of what his cognitive specialties were and then go poking around in his brain until they find something - anything that sort of conforms to their previous expectations.

SIMON: Was part of the problem that they knew it was Einstein's brain, and therefore they were predisposed to see things?

HINES: Exactly right, exactly right. It's rather like seeing faces or shapes in clouds. Those shapes really aren't in the clouds. They're in your mind.

SIMON: Forgive me - what amounts to a philosophical question - why have we been fascinated by Einstein's brain matter over the years?

HINES: Well, I think it's kind of a cult of personality. He was obviously a very, very bright individual but one of the, kind of, myths of his intellect is that he was this great over-towering mathematician. In fact, he wasn't - amongst his colleagues in physics - a particularly good mathematician. And that's kind of overlooked in the kind of cult of personality about him.

SIMON: Do we find it interesting - or maybe reassuring - to try and look for special clues in Einstein's brain because, I mean, if it can all be traced to the guy's brain, we can hardly be held responsible for being born with, you know, what amounts to inferior material?

HINES: Well, I'm not sure about that. I mean, clearly his intellect was different and intellect is in the brain, not in your kidneys or your liver or whatever. But you're not going to find the correlation of his intellect in anything that you can see - probably is in their somewhere in terms of functional imaging. As one could imagine doing functional imaging on a whole bunch of, kind of, Einstein-like physicists today. You know, that's the way to do it, not study one particular brain just because it's the brain of somebody who was really smart.

SIMON: Terence Hines is a professor of psychology at Pace University. Thanks so much for being with us.

HINES: Oh, my pleasure.

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