Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Albert Einstein—A Visual Genius

Photograph by Oren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J.
(The Library of Congress) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
What causes someone to be a genius and make so many groundbreaking contributions to our world? This is the question scientists have tried to answer for several decades by exploring Albert Einstein's brainwell, actually, his stolen brain.

In the article Einstein's Brain Unlocks Some Mysteries of the Mind, author Jon Hamilton discusses why we even have Einstein's brain available for study nearly 60 years after his death. It is thanks to Thomas Harvey, a pathologist who performed the autopsy on Einstein after his death. He stole Einstein's brain before this genius was cremated, and no one would learn about his theft until 10 years later. Harvey believed he could crack the code for why Einstein was a genius. Not being a neurologist, Harvey realized he couldn't find the answer without help. Storing it at one point in a Tupperware container, Harvey began sending slivers of Einstein’s brain to scientists who had the means to study it more thoroughly.

In the 1980s, Dr. Marian Diamond at the University of California, Berkeley, asked for samples from four areas of his brain. Harvey sent the pieces to her by mail in a mayonnaise jar. Unlike many of her peers who believed neurons to be the most essential working cells of the brain, Dr. Diamond’s research focused on the glial cell, which means glue. At the time, most believed these were just the glue holding the brain together. Now many believe they help feed the neurons and increase communication between them. What Diamond found in Einstein’s brain is a high concentration of glial cells in the tissue involved in image and complex thinking.

Could Einstein have been a better visualizer than most?

As Molly Edmunds points out in How Albert Einstein's Brain Worked, Dr. Diamond’s work came under criticism for her research process since glial cells continually divide during a person’s life. Plus, the subjects to which she compared Einstein's brain to weren’t on par with his age or of a high IQ score.

Jimhutchins at en.wikipedia
Still searching for answers and still in possession of Einstein’s brain, Harvey contacted Dr. Sandra Witelson, a researcher at McMaster University, who was looking into the differences between men’s and women’s brains. Dr. Witelson agreed to study Einstein’s brain, and Harvey gave her a fifth of it. Because of her previous research, Dr. Witelson had years to acquire various types of brains, which she used to find 35 comparable male brains with an average IQ of 116 and 56 female brains. One odd element that stood out to her when inspecting this genius's brain was that the Sylvian fissure (lateral sulcus shown above right) was mostly absent. This fissure separates the parietal lobe into two compartments. Because Einstein’s brain had a smaller dividing line, his parietal lobe was 15 percent wider than average brains. What’s even more interesting (and how the story relates to this blog) is that we use our parietal lobe for math, spatial reasoning—and three-dimensional visualization.

As Edmunds points out, this fact is very telling when you understand that Einstein credits his major discovery to visualization: Einstein "...  figured out the theory of relativity by imagining a ride on a light beam through space ..." and "... saw his ideas in pictures and then found the language to describe them."
 
"Words do not seem to play any roles," Einstein said. "[There are] more or less clear images."  

His nearly non-existent Sylvian fissure is the current theory on why Einstein was a genius—until someone can visualize another, better theory. Maybe that is what it will take to crack Einstein’s thought process. A scientist who is able to "see" the answer.

So don’t be afraid to use graphics or images of your ideas and solutions. People will think that you’re pretty smart, since you’ll be using the same methods as Einstein.

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