“Sitting on your shoulders," physicist Michio Kaku once observed, "is the most complicated object in the known universe.”
No wonder pathologist Thomas Harvey made off with Albert Einstein’s brain after conducting his famous autopsy in 1955. You couldn't ask for a better, more complicated, subject. But Harvey’s study, which involved sectioning pieces of Einstein's preserved brain and mailing them off to various scientists, didn't yield much.
After the pathologist's death in 2007, photographs that he had taken of Einstein’s brain came to light. In 2012, Fred Lepore, a Professor of Neurology & Ophthamology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, published a study of Einstein’s cerebral cortex with fellow scientists Dean Falk and Adrianne Noe.
I spoke with Lepore recently about the group’s findings and ongoing research that is shedding light on brain plasticity. Even if we can’t all be Einstein, we can change our brains, it seems—physically, functionally, and chemically—just by using them.
Here are more excerpts from my conversation with Lepore, edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Can you tell me about your study of Einstein’s brain?
A: Dean Falk, a paleoanthropologist, was really the anatomist on the project. Once we obtained those photographs that had been lost for half a century, Falk analyzed them for the better part of two months, looking at every single sulcus, that’s kind of a groove, and every single ridge, or gyrus. She compared the anatomy of Einstein’s brain to standard atlases out there, like Connolly’s and Ono’s.
Every lobe of Einstein's brain is different. By every lobe, we’re talking about the temporal lobe, the occipital lobe, the parietal lobe, and the frontal lobes. The limbic lobe, too. If you look at each one and compare them to norms, Einstein's are all different. The standout is in the right prefrontal lobe. In normal human anatomy, you would have three ridges, three gyri. Einstein had a fourth.
Q: Is there a distinction to be made between the brain and mind?
A: I make my living as a neurologist. If there’s something wrong with your left arm, I’m going to look at the right side of your brain. To me, the brain equals the mind. But science hasn’t really nailed that down. There have been a lot of distinguished neuroscientists who are what we call dualists. They thought that consciousness, or the mind, was a bit separate from the brain. [Charles] Sherrington wrestled with that conundrum and could never fully resolve it.
Q: Is it true that learning new things causes your brain to undergo physical changes?
A: Eric Kandel, a neuropsychiatrist, shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000 for his work on a sea slug, an invertebrate that lives in the Pacific Ocean. It’s called an Aplysia californica, and it’s got about 20,000 neurons. Kandel found that when you shock the mantle, it withdraws the gill. It has this reflex. You can look at these neurons and see what happens in a very simple nervous system. That’s your proof of concept. Learning changes the physical substrate of the nervous system of this very, very simple creature.
Now, does that happen in humans? We would assume that learning must be phylogenetically preserved as you go up the tree. I don’t think we really know that. But if you’re coming back to the idea that your mental experience, particularly things like learning, does that change the nervous system? It seems like a good bet that it does.
Q: How has the concept of brain plasticity altered the way we view learning?
A: It’s a huge concept. If you don’t have a dynamic nervous system, where are you going to get your information? The only way you’re going to get it is, it’s got to be built into your genome. It’s nature versus nurture—nature being your genome. We’ve got 30,000 genes—12,000 more than a roundworm. We’ve got 86 billion neurons. Each of those neurons has, I don’t know, 1,000, 10,000 connections, synapses. You’ve got so many more elements in your nervous system. Without nurture, there’s no way that 30,000 genes are going to be able to program them or connect up different parts of the brain to make new discoveries. You can’t do it with your genome alone. If you don’t have a mechanism for learning such as neuroplasticity, you're restricted to genetically determined neural hardwiring for transmitting information from generation to generation.