On April 18, 1955, Albert Einstein died at Princeton Hospital of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. Within hours the pathologist on call, Thomas Harvey, acting on his own initiative, removed the famed physicist's brain without the family's permission. He then preserved the organ, counter to Einstein's stated wish to be cremated. Harvey managed to secure a retroactive blessing from Einstein's son Hans Albert, with the stipulation that the brain would be used only for scientific purposes. But Harvey himself lacked the expertise needed to analyze the organ, so he began to seek out specialists to help him. It would take him 30 years to find one. The quest changed the course of Harvey's life and consigned his precious specimen to a fate that is at once strange, sad and fraught with ethical complications.

Einstein was not the first renowned thinker to have his brain scrutinized in the name of science. The past is littered with similar examples. I found myself drawn into the curious history of these so-called elite brain studies around 15 years ago, when I heard my frustrated calculus students complaining that the Einsteins of the world have a neuroanatomical advantage over mere mortals such as themselves. I found this idea dismaying—most people's brains are fully equipped to learn college-level calculus—but it prompted me to investigate the scientific literature to see exactly what, if anything, brain research has revealed about the source of mathematical ability in particular and exceptional intellect in general. In so doing, I found that, despite enthusiastic efforts over the past two centuries to discern the anatomy of talent or genius, scientists are not much closer to finding it now than they were in the 1800s.

The case of Einstein's brain is perhaps the most prominent example of how profound this failure has been. As of this writing, half a dozen reports on his brain, each highlighting a different anatomical feature as the possible fount of his brilliance, have come forth—all to great media fanfare. None has revealed a credible anatomical basis for the man's aptitude. Instead they simply add to the pile of flawed brain studies that have collectively spawned what one critic has ruefully termed a “neuromythology” of genius.

Brain equals mind?

The long and checkered tradition of studying the brains of gifted people began 100 years before Einstein's death with the passing in 1855 of German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, the Einstein of his day. Gauss's University of Göttingen colleagues presided over his autopsy and removed his brain. One of them, an anatomist named Rudolph Wagner, then preserved the whole brain in an alcohol solution and later convinced Gauss's son to allow him to keep it for research. Wagner obtained the organ to bolster his firmly held belief in René Descartes's philosophy of dualism: the idea of the mind as something more than the sum of the brain's physical functions. Are human beings merely sophisticated machines, or are they endowed by God with a soul substance? This question was the hot-button issue of the era. Either brain equals mind, or it doesn't. For Wagner, the very existence of God hung on the answer.

Acquiring the brain of a celebrated genius opened the door to more acquisitions, and within seven years Wagner published two detailed studies of the comparative anatomy of primate brains. His data set included measurements of 964 brains from people of all walks of life—English poet Lord Byron and French naturalist Georges Cuvier, among them. Wagner found nothing to dispel his dualistic view of the mind. Neither brain weight nor surface convolution patterns seemed to correspond with intellectual prowess. Cuvier's brain was huge, but so was the brain of a manual laborer. Gauss's brain had an intricate pattern of grooves, or sulci, in the cerebral surface, but so did a washerwoman's. Thus, the crucial difference between a genius and an average Joe, it seemed, had to lie below the surface or even beyond brain anatomy altogether. Perhaps it derived, as Wagner hoped, from the divine element, the ghost in the machine.

Scientific materialists of that era, unhappy with Wagner's findings, took the audacious step of founding brain-donation societies in hopes of identifying the physical underpinnings of exceptional talent. Membership hinged on the promise to bequeath one's brain to one's fellows. By the end of the 19th century, as science began to usurp the role of religion, bestowing one's brain became a positively fashionable thing to do. Enthusiasm peaked at the founding of the brain societies, however, and quickly waned in the absence of any substantiated findings. By the dawn of the 20th century the specimens had piled up, but most went unstudied or were lost to neglect.

Exactly what fueled Harvey's obsession with Einstein's brain is unknown. He was aware of the historical precedents, of the many collections of celebrated brains. He may have simply been overcome by curiosity. But the political atmosphere of the 1950s may have motivated him, too. Harvey knew that in the 1920s, the search for the anatomy of genius had moved on to the cellular level. Soviet scientists, having amassed a pantheon of celebrated brains, including those of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, established a secretive research program to map the cortical layers of the brain's hemispheres based on neuronal patterns, a specialty known as cytoarchitectonics. Outsiders were denied access to the specimens, and the Soviets always seemed poised to announce a great discovery, although they never did. It was in this atmosphere of cold war competitiveness and paranoia that Harvey decided to appropriate Einstein's brain.

Sliced and diced

By all accounts, Harvey was an eccentric man but scrupulous. Once he acquired his hallowed relic, he approached it as methodically as any crime scene investigator. He photographed the cortical surface from every angle, inserting a scale bar so that measurements could be made from the images. He then took the specimen to the pathology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania and entrusted it to a gifted technician, Marta Keller. Under Harvey's exacting instructions, while using the best practices at the time for neurological tissue preparation, Keller spent the next eight months dissecting portions of the cortex, embedding 240 numbered chunks of it in blocks of a clear plastic material called celloidin and mounting 12 sets of microscope slides with stained tissue slices. Harvey sent slide sets to several of his peers. None of them found anything unusual in the slides, but they did find something strange about Harvey's obsessive control over the brain.

Pathologists generally have the latitude of removing, preserving and studying organs, explains Umberto De Girolami, a neuropathologist at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. But “all tissues removed, as authorized to be retained by written permission, are under the custody of the hospital and are never considered the personal property of the attending pathologist.” In defiance of protocol and his employer's demands, Harvey refused to relinquish his precious specimen and was eventually fired in 1960. He packed his belongings and left for the Midwest, bringing with him two jars. One contained the sugar-cube-size, celloidin-embedded chunks Keller had so carefully prepared; the other held the undissected portions of Einstein's brain. He stowed the jars in a beer cooler along with the remaining sets of slides and the calibrated photographs.

Harvey suffered several downward turns after the hospital terminated him. His marriage fell apart, and he lost his medical license. He then took a job in a plastics-extrusion factory. He moved frequently, at one point becoming a neighbor and drinking companion of writer William S. Burroughs. But he never lost interest in the brain, and eventually, three decades after he removed it from Einstein's corpse, Harvey found a neuroscientist to study it. Or rather she found him.

In 1985 Marian C. Diamond of the University of California, Berkeley, requested four of Harvey's tissue blocks. She was interested in studying Einstein's glial cells. Glial cells act as a support system for neurons. In Diamond's previous work with mice, she found that exposure to a sensory-enriched environment produces a higher ratio of glial cells to neurons than does a nonstimulating environment. She suspected that Einstein might have possessed a high ratio of glial cells to neurons in portions of his cortex associated with higher neural functions such as mental imagery, memory and attention.

When Diamond examined the material Harvey sent, she found what she was looking for in one of the four tissue blocks and concluded that the higher proportion of glial cells she observed resulted from Einstein's enhanced use of this tissue. In the ensuing media frenzy around her study, however, journalists gave the impression that this surfeit was not the product of his deep thinking but the cause of it.

It was not long before scientists themselves began to search for anatomical explanations for Einstein's intellectual prowess. Studies in the 1990s by Britt Anderson, then at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and psychologist Sandra Witelson of McMaster University in Ontario attributed it to other distinctive aspects of his brain. Anderson called attention to the high density of cells in his prefrontal cortex. For her part, Witelson focused on the atypical absence of the so-called parietal operculum, part of a fissure that divides the parietal lobe. As a result, she claimed, Einstein had an expanded cortical region associated with visuospatial and mathematical abilities.

The ensuing decade saw the publication of many interesting studies on anatomical anomalies in the brains of professional musicians and London taxi drivers but nothing on Einstein. Then, in 2007, just around the time of Harvey's death, neuro-ophthalmologist Frederick E. Lepore of what is now the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School discovered a previously unreported cache of Harvey's calibrated photographs of Einstein's brain. He shared these with Dean Falk, a paleoanthropologist at Florida State University who works primarily on brain evolution. Falk noticed some odd features in the topography of the brain, including a knob on the cortex known as the Omega sign that had previously been linked to musical talent. “It is interesting to contemplate,” she wrote, “that [Einstein's] extraordinary abilities may, to some degree, have been associated with the unusual gross anatomy of his cerebral cortex.”

In the most recent of the Einstein brain studies, published online in 2013, Falk and Weiwei Men of East China Normal University in Shanghai claimed to find another anatomical explanation for the physicist's prodigious powers of thought: in addition to his unique cortical structure and cytoarchitectonics, Einstein had “enhanced communication routes between at least some parts of his two cerebral hemispheres,” they claimed. They based their conjecture on measurements of the cross-sectional area of the corpus callosum, the fiber bundle connecting the left and right hemispheres, of Einstein's brain as compared with a control group.

As compelling as these proposed explanations for Einstein's achievements are at first glance, they all suffer from similar methodological defects. Terence Hines, a psychologist at Pace University, has been their most persistent critic. Hines observes that, among other scientific sins, the architects of these studies have tended to favor findings that support their preconceptions, downplaying aspects of Einstein's brain that are either within normal limits or even deficient. Poorly chosen comparative samples have further confused matters. Anderson, for instance, measured Einstein's brain against only five other brains in her study—hardly enough to capture the range of human variation and generate statistically significant conclusions.

Perhaps most troubling of all is the post hoc fallacy that haunts almost every claim to have pinpointed the anatomical substrate of genius: when you begin with the assumption that geniuses are different from everyone else, the culprit would logically be any anatomical anomaly that you happen to come across. And if you make enough measurements of anyone's brain, you will find something that sets it apart.

Nature vs. nurture

Today, some 60 years after Harvey's fateful decision, Einstein's brain is scattered in several locations. Harvey returned the bulk of it—170 of the original 240 pieces embedded in celloidin, along with the cerebellum and brain stem—to Princeton Hospital (since replaced with the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro) shortly before his death a decade ago. That material is now in the care of pathologist Elliot Krauss of the Princeton medical center, who holds Harvey's old job and who guards the material closely. Harvey's personal collection of some 500 slides, as well as his calibrated photographs, went to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md. Other slides and bits and pieces are distributed among a dozen museums and university researchers. And speculation about the source of Einstein's brilliance continues.

Would science, and neuroscience in particular, be better off if Einstein's brain had been cremated with his body? The point is now moot, but the question deserves some consideration. In 1906, more than a century before Men and Falk did their research, American anatomist Edward Anthony Spitzka thought he had found the key to mental acuity in the cross-sectional area of the corpus callosum. In his report he suggested that men of genius “were capable of their great efforts of the intellect … as it were, ‘without taking pains.’” Authors of subsequent elite brain studies, including those focused on Einstein, have echoed his suggestion that mental greatness is purely a trick of nature. Yet none has shown it to be true.

To my mind, this failure is ultimately a good thing because the discovery of substrates of talent—or lack thereof—in the brain would have troubling practical and ethical implications. If medical imaging could reveal anatomical correlates of talent, would parents then start screening children and directing them to training regimens that accord with their neuroanatomy? Would they deny physics club or music lessons to a kid who lacks the Omega sign?

To a student who laments not being born with a math brain, I would point out that Einstein might not have been either. We don't know, and it doesn't matter. Behind the great achievements of a Gauss or an Einstein is in all cases a life devoted to contemplation, curiosity, collaboration and, perhaps most of all, hard work.