How do geniuses think

A few cuts through the brain and the origin of genius reveals itself - so the hope of many brain researchers. But it is not that simple. Nevertheless, the interaction of both halves of the brain shows what humans are capable of.

Scientific supervision: Prof. Dr. Elsbeth Stern

Published: 10/01/2017

Level: medium

  • In 1856, with the study of the brain of the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauß, the systematic research into the brains of exceptional personalities began.
  • Albert Einstein's brain is probably the most studied brain in brain research: its two hemispheres were extraordinarily strongly linked, the cerebral bar, the so-called corpus callosum, was very pronounced and there was a high number of glial cells. However, these discoveries are not clear evidence of Einstein's genius.
  • Many geniuses suffered from mental disorders. Albert Einstein and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk probably had Asperger's syndrome. In some savants, the orbitofrontal cortex in the left anterior temporal lobe is damaged. This may explain why these people suddenly develop an extraordinary island talent. Savant syndrome can also appear suddenly after an accident or stroke. After brain damage, especially the left hemisphere, people are often particularly creative or musical.
  • Creative intoxication through overstimulation: The brains of highly creative people do not filter out a lot of unimportant information. This lack of "latent inhibition" leads them to creative top performances.


Thomas Harvey's dubious fame

A Kentucky pathologist defied the actual wish of the genius of the century Albert Einstein: Thomas Harvey set to work in 1955 immediately after Einstein's death. He removed the brain, cut it into 240 cubes, and placed it in two mason jars. Later he made thin sections for the microscope. Einstein actually wanted to be burned after his death. And basically Harvey had no particular expertise in the field of brain anatomy. One author even put it in such a way that at that time an "inexperienced man accidentally came into possession of a treasure that overwhelmed him in every respect." Probably due to this idiosyncratic decision, Harvey soon lost his license to practice medicine and from then on had to work as a factory worker punch through. Even if it is not entirely clear whether it was Einstein's will to have his brain examined scientifically - Harvey subsequently obtained the consent of Einstein's sons for this. He spent the next few decades getting other researchers interested in the thought organ of the respected physicist, but only a few were interested in it. After 42 years, Einstein's brain ended up back in pathology at Princeton and a museum in Chicago. Harvey died in 2007.

After death, the brains of some important personalities live on: in the form of research objects, in anatomical collections, in drawings, photographs and computer images - always with the hope of being able to explain the genius of these people with the shape and structure of the brain.

Many studies have now dealt with the cauliflower-sized lump, and it was always another feature that received attention as a possible origin of genius. Some brains, such as that of Albert Einstein or Carl Friedrich Gauß, lay unnoticed in the cupboard for decades until they were finally examined again with the help of magnetic resonance tomography. In Albert Einstein's brain in particular, one hoped to find answers to the really big questions.

A look into the ingenious brain

Systematic research into the brains of exceptional personalities began in 1856. At that time, the physiologist Rudolf Wagner preserved the brain of the recently deceased German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauß, who was something like the Einstein of his time. It was the starting signal for research into the brains of numerous scholars, artists and politicians. Examination of Gauss' brain did indeed show an extraordinary brain in terms of its convolutions, but their shape and arrangement were not specific and did not explain his extraordinary abilities.

About 100 years later, people hoped to gain new insights into what is probably today's most famous brain: Albert Einstein's brain was weighed, mapped and, shortly after his death, divided into individual tissue blocks and sections. At 1.22 kilograms, it was around 145 grams lighter than comparable men's brains, but there was nothing else to notice. For a long time the brain, which was now scattered in 240 cubes all over the world, was hardly noticed. It was not until 1999 that a new investigation caused a stir, in which Sandra Witelson of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario found that part of the furrow that normally runs through the parietal lobe (Sylvian fissure) was missing in Einstein. Areas in the parietal lobe depend, among other things, on mathematical abilities as well as spatial imagination. The unusual shape was immediately associated with Einstein's genius. However, this peculiarity was also found in personalities who did not have particularly extraordinary mathematical skills, so that the lack of Sylvian furrow ultimately does not provide a sound justification for Einstein's genius.

At least, however, US and Chinese researchers found in a 2013 study that Einstein's brain hemispheres were extraordinarily strongly connected. Compared to other brains, Einstein had a more pronounced cerebral bar, the so-called corpus callosum. The transverse structure of nerve fibers connects both halves of the brain. The glial cells also received new attention. For a long time they were only considered to be “cement cells” that hold neurons together like a kind of glue. However, there are indications that they could communicate with the neurons and stimulate them. The glial cells promote brain function in general: the more of them in the cerebral cortex, the more the brain does. And in fact, a high number of glial cells was found in Einstein's brain in relation to the nerve cells. But here, too, caution is advised in the interpretation: the excess of glial cells need not have been the cause of Einstein's ingenious thoughts; it could also be just a simple correlation.

The genius researcher gets on a different track when he looks at other brilliant personalities. Many celebrities are said to have been psychologically abnormal. "Genius and madness" are close together, as one often hears. In fact, geniuses like Glenn Gould, the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and possibly Albert Einstein "suffered" from Asperger's syndrome, a variant of autism. At least this is what Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen suspected. Difficulties in understanding social interactions are characteristic of Asperger's syndrome, but those affected are very good at classifying objects and noticing details, as Baren-Cohen observed.

Savants - people with extraordinary talent

Anyone interested in the essence of genius will sooner or later come across the phenomenon of island talent. The affected people (savants) have a cognitive disability or some other developmental disorder, but they can nonetheless achieve very special, extraordinary achievements in a small sub-area. For example, you play one or more musical instruments perfectly - without ever having had music lessons. Some speak dozens of languages, others calculate faster than a pocket calculator, but cannot tie their own shoes, for example. About half of all known islanders are also autistic.


Artist after stroke

When looking into the brain with the help of an MRI, a peculiarity actually becomes apparent: the cerebral bar, which was still so fabulously formed in Einstein's work, is missing in some savants. However, it seems unlikely that this alone is the reason for their special talent. There are people who can also do without bars in the brain, but who do not show particularly noticeable abilities. In addition, savant syndrome is not always congenital. Time and again, cases cause a sensation where someone changes radically overnight after an accident or a stroke. For example, former construction worker Tommy McHugh from England. When he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and was discharged from the hospital after the operation, he suddenly felt the insatiable urge to draw and paint. Rather unusual for the construction worker, who had often been imprisoned for drug abuse and violent crimes and was previously not interested in art. Until his death in 2012 he created pictures like on an assembly line.


Damage in the brain as a cause of genius?

It is known that in some of these savants the left hemisphere is damaged, more precisely the orbitofrontal cortex in the left anterior temporal lobe. There are many myths circulating about the distribution of tasks between the two hemispheres of the brain [see left and right hemisphere - different worlds?]. The left hemisphere, however, is undoubtedly specialized in many language processes, while spatial reasoning, numerical comprehension or face recognition are more on the right. This has led to the idea that in some savants the right side tries to compensate for the deficits of the left by using new areas of the brain. Some researchers also suspect that the injury has suddenly made the right half “released” from the otherwise dominant left side, thereby activating the “dormant” abilities. It almost seems that there is an artistic potential slumbering in all of us, which could only be awakened by a small brain change.

Creative intoxication from overstimulation

The peculiarity that Tommy McHugh not only painted and sculpted, but also wrote poetry, something that is controlled by the left hemisphere, cannot be explained by this. Like many highly creative people, McHugh seemed to be in a frenzy. But how does this creative peak come about? Usually the temporal lobe controls behaviors such as controlling, thinking, and evaluating. In this way, we filter out the unimportant and concentrate on the essentials, on the impressions and thoughts that are necessary to cope with a certain situation. Psychologists call this ability “latent inhibition”. In fact, it is known that this latent inhibition is low in particularly creative people. McHugh's transformed brain probably worked in a similar way. There is overstimulation, which can lead to unusual associations of thoughts and thus to creative top performances. This may be caused by an injury to the temporal lobe. The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh also painted and wrote poetry at the end of his life as if in a frenzy. He may have temporal lobe epilepsy.

The interpretation of structure and function in relation to intellectual abilities does not seem to be that simple. It is true that certain thinking activities can be assigned to individual brain areas, their morphology can be studied, electrical activity and energy consumption can be measured, or the connections between the brain regions involved can be shown. But thinking itself, the origin of human uniqueness, remains unexplained. And despite some clues, we are still a long way from a generally accepted theory of the origin of genius. Perhaps it would take a modern Einstein, a genius of the century in neuroscience?

For further reading:

  • Spectrum of Science: Dossier 2007, 3: Brain and Mind: How Geniuses Think and Other Insights into the Dimensions of the Human Mind
  • Christian Ankowitsch: Why Einstein Never Wore Socks (2016)
  • Michael Hagner: Ingenious brains. On the history of elite brain research (2004)