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Research: Neuromythology

News Story

Professor Terence Hines challenges the neurological urban legend of Albert Einstein’s brain one critique at a time.

“About 10 or 12 years ago, I was teaching a neurophysiology class and somebody said that they had always heard that Einstein’s brain had more glial, or support, cells than normal people. I had heard that too and it seemed reasonable, so I decided to read the paper to see what was up,” explains Dyson Psychology Professor Terence Hines, PhD.

“So I read the paper by Marion Diamond and it was awful,” says Hines. “In fact, I used it in my statistics class as an example of how not to do things.”

Diamond used several small samples of Einstein’s brain and counted the number of neurons, glial cells, neuron to glia ratios, and the ratios of different kinds of glial cells. Of the four different comparisons she reported in the paper between the brains of Einstein and the control brains, only one was statistically significant.

“If you read the paper, you’ll see she actually did 28 different comparisons. If you do 28 comparisons you’ll get at least one—by chance—that’s ‘significant,’” says Hines, “so that’s a major statistical problem.”

In addition, the control brains she used for comparison came from men who had died in VA hospitals. Hines believes this poses a problem because men who die in VA hospitals are typically not of the same socioeconomic or educational class as Albert Einstein. Both of these factors can affect the brain. Diamond indicated that the men these brains came from did not die from neurologic disease. However this doesn’t rule out the possibility that these men had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease or something similar prior to their deaths from unrelated causes.

“Frankly, I was very suspicious about that paper,” he says, “so I brought it to class for my students to critique. Some did well; some did not-so-well. They challenged me to write my own critique and I did. I sent it off to a journal, and they published it.”

The experience got him interested in the literature on Einstein’s brain and every so often a paper on this topic would pop up. In late 2012, a big paper appeared in Brain, a well-known neurology journal, which claimed that the surface structure of Einstein’s brain was different. The paper reported an incredibly detailed analysis comparing the ridges and furrows of photographs of Einstein’s brain with those of brains published in two brain atlases.

“Guess what? They found differences. Comparing brains is like comparing fingerprints. There will always be differences” Hines says. “They tried to shoehorn what they found into a very naive theory about Einstein’s cognition. The biggest difference between the brains was in the area that controls movement of the lips and tongue. The authors of the paper desperately tried to fit that into the notion that Einstein was a mathematical genius—which he wasn’t. In fact, he often had to get help regarding the mathematical aspects of his theories from other physicists and mathematicians”

So after reviewing all of the available literature on Einstein’s brain, Hines wrote a response and sent it to another neurology journal, Brain and Cognition. For Hines, this was a classic cautionary tale against confirmation bias. If you expect to find something, even with random data, he says, you’re gonna find it—even if it’s not there.

With new microscope slides of Einstein’s brain recently being shared with the scientific community, Hines suggests that future studies should use blind comparisons of brains. If a study is blind, conformational biases won’t influence the findings.

“This is also a cautionary tale for people who get carried away by their own hypotheses and don’t do careful science,” he adds.