The Blog

They Saved Einstein's Brain!

More precisely, they lost it. It finally turned up in Wichita, Kansas, in the hands of the secretive pathologist who'd originally sawn it out of Albert Einstein's skull and still sought to find the secret of his genius within its cerebral structure.

But there's no definitive answer. For one thing, hundreds of Mensa-level brains would have to be examined to find if they all had a "sign of omega" (a knob on the brain's right motor strip often more developed in musicians) or another similar physical correlation. It would also be extremely difficult to work out whether Einstein was born with a big brain or, due to the stimuli he gave his grey matter during his lifetime, developed it.

Some say Einstein might have been autistic but we'll never know for sure. However, while I know I don't have his brainpower (one source estimates Albert's IQ at about 160 but when I was diagnosed with Aspergers my full scale IQ came in at 120), my verbal IQ (essentially my writing ability and spoken articulacy) was "very superior" but my performance IQ (the speed at which I processed information) was "significantly worse than all other indexes" and represented "a clear and specific deficit in [my] ability to quickly and efficiently process visual information." My processing speed, in fact, was "better than only 3% of the population."

In other words - input feeble, output fandabidozi; and as my brain could scarcely function any faster than a low-grade moron's, you might assume I would have needed a structured existence, rigid routines and outside support just to cope with everyday life.

But despite undiagnosed Aspergers and with said deficit, I took that brain independently across Australia for a year in 1988-1989, dealt with major change, coped with unstructured experiences and socialized to survive. Later, I worked in the real world for a living, ran my own flat, wrote a book and filed all these blogs.

Was I born with a "big brain" or did I develop it via stimuli?

Well, as I later explained in Dear Miss Landau:

"Every brain has its hardware and its software. The software holds the higher intellectual capacity for flexibility and creativity. The hardware is the uglier, no-nonsense part of the machine which comes into play when the higher functions, either from fatigue, a hammer blow to the head, or both, no longer function.

Skills deep as bone. Burnt into me in Australia, the back-up capability to make the right decision when I couldn't think straight."

And as I'd worked out, and also said in Dear Miss Landau:

"According to the article How To Be A Genius in the New Scientist of September 16 2006, although some people are indeed born with greater genetic gifts than others 'some critical things line up so that a person of good intelligence can put in the sustained, focused effort it takes to achieve extraordinary mastery.' Just having great talent or intelligence on its own was not enough, it seemed. That talent had to be built, honed and painstakingly sculpted. There also seemed to be a ten-year rule: 'it seems you have to put in at least a decade of focused work to master something and bring greatness within reach.'

What happened to the brain as a result of this work?

The article seemed to have the answer:

'Eric Kandel of Columbia University in New York, who won a Nobel prize in 2000 for discovering much of the neural basis of memory and learning, has shown that both the number and strength of the nerve connections associated with a memory or skill increase in proportion to how often and how emphatically the lesson is repeated. So focused study and practice literally build the neural networks of expertise.'

Although my brain was autistic I'd put in, not ten, but fifteen years of work to bring the neural networks of my verbal IQ up to par. Despite the deficiencies in my performance IQ, my 'Asperger focus' had actually given me an advantage, helping me to concentrate on developing a particular skill more easily than a multi-tasking neuro-typical might.

I imagined the way those neural networks must actually have grown and thickened, helping the sparks of inspiration flow more easily. Whereas a talented but unpractised writer might only have the equivalent of low voltage domestic wiring in his brain, I now had heavy duty commercial cabling."

That is what seems to have happened to me. Studies of Einstein's brain, however, discovered it had more glial cells than normal, that the neurons in his prefrontal cortex were more tightly packed than usual (possibly allowing faster information-processing), that his inferior parietal lobule (in charge of spatial cognition and mathematical thought) was wider and better integrated than most, that his mid-frontal lobe (responsible for working memory and planning) had an extra ridge, that he did indeed possess a "sign of omega" and also owned a thicker-than-average corpus callosum, allowing better co-operation between brain hemispheres.

But did he come out of the womb with his superbrain fully formed, or did a lifetime's scientific research improve his cerebral hardware, add heavy duty cabling to his neural net and thicken his callosum?

The answer probably lies partly with nature and partly with nurture, but since Einstein died in 1955 and promptly had his brain removed, we can't ask him. As I'm alive, as I've been formally diagnosed and as no one has yet removed my brain (although, having met me, many would like to try), I can attempt inexpertly to explain that the crucible of my experience in Australia plus decades of writing practice does indeed seem to have upgraded my neural net (I can put together the blog you're reading right now much more easily than I could have done twenty years ago), added back-up hardware and partly compensated for my slow, moronic performance IQ.

But a man's a man for a' that, and there's no single, simple means of finding his measure.

James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.

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