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Einstein's Brain and the Incomparable Shakespeare

Einstein's physical brain

Browsing social media I discovered the claim that there is irrefutable empirical evidence that Einstein's brain was physically different from those of the rest of us.  Seems obvious, unless you have a friend who is a neuropathologist (which I do) who has actually seen a few human brains and can feed you some of the current research on the question.  In an article entitled "Neuromythology of Einstein's Brain" published in Brain and Cognition, Terence Hines does a convincing job of debunking the myths and the various scientific experiments claiming to have proven that Einstein's brain was physically exceptional.

Histology, glial cells, astrocytes, and "Did you know Einstein was dyslexic?"

No doubt well-known among brainiacs but news to me, when Einstein died in 1955 at the age of 76, he had requested that his body be cremated.  However, Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy took the incredible liberty of removing and preserving Einstein's brain.  Thirty years later, publications began to appear in the scientific literature of various tests and analyses of Einstein's brain.  These investigations invariable "proved" that Einstein's brain was "different."



How does one study a physical brain?  As the Hines' article outlines (and I will vulgarize here) there are a variety of potential approaches.  The human brain (above) looks like a cross between a  cauliflower and a pomegranate (below).




  You can therefore assess the hills and dales, humps and valleys, cliffs and crevices.  They might prove to be more numerous, higher or deeper, or even show an aesthetic pattern or distinctive ratio.  You can assess a slice of the brain's tissue and note that it seems to have a lot of neurons.  Since the brain comes in two hemispheres, you might take note that a particular brain seems more symmetrical than normal or more asymmetrical than average.  Brains can be compared in terms of overall size.  We can also look at a brain and notice that this bump over here seems pretty big and that lump over there has a different shape and density.  The problem with each of these analyses, as Hines points out, is that--in addition to their empirical methodological failings--they begin with the assumption that Einstein was a genius.

The Post-hoc fallacy

I'm not saying Einstein wasn't a genius; however, the assumption of his genius creates a self-fulling prophecy exacerbated by what is known in logic as post hoc, ergo propter hoc. The post-hoc fallacy is to believe that because "this" came before "that," "this" caused "that."  Put another way, a correlation between two events does not prove that one event caused the other.  During my childhood, among my peer group, there was a firm belief that killing a spider would cause it to rain.  Pure nonsense, of course, but somewhere along the line someone must have killed a spider and gotten rained on.  (To this day I find myself reluctant to kill spiders, especially on days when I'm looking forward to playing golf.)

Whatever we might observe about Einstein's brain, we cannot conclude from a single example of a correlation between a physical brain and genius that specific neurological features are the cause of genius.  The problem is ultimately one of comparison.  The assumption of genius is unhelpful.  What we lack, as Hines reiterates, are an understanding and examples of an "average" brain.

Who compares with Shakespeare?

At the same time I was mulling over Einstein's brain, I was fielding questions online about comparisons to Shakespeare.  (Browsing the internet is a sure-fire way to end up with a metaphysical conceit.)  No doubt some positivists would love to go searching in Shakespeare's cauliflower for evidence of Othello and Lear.  However, the problem of Shakespeare and Einstein's brain and "genius" in general is one of comparison.  In my experience, close comparisons tend to diminish rather than extend the distance between genius and the rest of us.  Not without reason, the answer to Shakespeare's rhetorical question "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"  in "Sonnet 18" is "no."



Eugène Scribe

The problem of comparing Shakespeare to someone else (or vice versa) is establishing a basis of comparison. Shakespeare was not particularly prolific (38 plays over the course of his career). The French playwright Eugène Scribe wrote close to 400 and his well-made-play structure had greater subsequent influence than Shakespeare’s loose methods of composition.

The Folio Edition 

Today we value Shakespeare over his contemporaries, but that is an unequal comparison. Shakespeare’s plays have been preserved because Heminges and Condell published the Folio Edition in 1623 (7 years after Shakespeare’s death). Consequently we have many more of Shakespeare’s plays than those of any of his contemporaries. Christopher Marlowe might have proven to be the superior playwright if he hadn’t been murdered at the age of 29.

Shakespeare as storyteller

When I have asked younger readers of Shakespeare what they liked about the plays, the response has frequently been the “stories.” However, Shakespeare rarely if ever created the stories on which his plays are based. He was considered “uneducated” by his contemporaries because he did not attend university. Jonson, Kyd and Marlowe knew Latin, Greek and Italian, and could use stories from those languages for their plays. Shakespeare had to wait until there was an English translation available. Two of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet had earlier English versions before he wrote his version. (See: Why Did Shakespeare Make Juliet Thirteen Years Old?) Shakespeare’s forte was not as a storyteller.

Shakespeare the poet

What distinguishes Shakespeare is his poetry, the choice and arrangement of words, within the play. In fact, what first established Shakespeare’s career were the two books of poetry he wrote while the theatres were closed because of the plague. Here again, we have trouble establishing comparisons because poetic drama practically disappeared from the English-language tradition by the beginning of the 20th century. Theatre in general went into decline, as the novel became the dominant literary art form of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Verse drama

The poet T.S. Eliot experimented with writing drama in verse in the 1930s. His best-known example is Murder in the Cathedral, but he admitted that there was little chance of poetic drama surviving in the 20th century.



George Bernard Shaw 

George Bernard Shaw is probably the only well-enough-known English-language playwright to be compared to and who could compete with Shakespeare. However, Shaw was a very different kind of playwright and disapproved of Shakespeare saying:



I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare's philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him....

As we move into the modern and postmodern eras, the theatre has declined to such a point that the only possible comparisons would be with screenwriters. I could name a handful of candidates, but the comparison would no doubt embarrass them and be hardly meaningful.

Anne Hathaway and Mileva Marić Einstein

I must admit that I have thought out loud in front of students that "Perhaps if Shakespeare had had a happier marriage he would have stayed home in Stratford and gone into business with his father, and today we would be celebrating him as a minor poet and an excellent maker of gloves." When I think of Einstein's brain, I picture the patent clerk, at the kitchen table, writing "The Theory of Relativity," with his wife, Mileva Marić Einstein, who was also a physicist, looking over his shoulder and offering her sage advice.







Milena Marić Einstein and husband, 1912. Credit: ETH Zurich Archives (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Creedence heard it through the grapevine.



Comments

  1. Not sure about Anne H, but there is little doubt that Mileva was instrumental in Albert's work. He may not even have made it through university without her calming influence. In multiple letters he clearly identifies her as his colleague and considers his work to be 'their' work...that is until he became famous. He fell in love with his cousin, Elsa (whom he later married)and dumped Mileva. She struggled financially for the rest of her life and was the primary support to their schizophrenic son.
    Just sayin'

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  2. Here's more discussion of the role of Einstein's wife Mileva Maric: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/427621/did-einsteins-first-wife-secretly-coauthor-his-1905-relativity-paper/

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