Brains

 

What does it mean to have brains? We seem obsessed with the notion and idolize people who are brainy. Well, that whole concept took a turn when I read a book called: Driving Mr. Albert; A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain (Michael Paterniti, The Dial Press, 2000).

The book title must be taken literally. The author, a professional journalist, actually did travel across the country with the doctor who possessed Albert Einstein’s brain. It was carried in a Tupperware container.

The doctor, a pathologist named Thomas Harvey at Princeton Hospital had performed the autopsy on Einstein when he died in the 1050’s. Dr. Harvey claimed Einstein’s son gave him permission to study the brain. So he removed it during autopsy. After storing it in his office for some time, he became paranoid that it would disappear or be misplaced, so he took it home and kept it there for forty years.

Now he wanted to give the brain to Einstein’s granddaughter who lived in California. So off they go in a rented Skylark with the Tupperware container in the trunk. What an unlikely match, a young, struggling journalist, and this old academic who took possession of Einstein’s brain, oh so many years ago.

The trip itself was an ironic comedy of strange people, odd places and unusual, unknown facts about brains in general. And then some facts about famous brains in particular. We heard about Lenin’s brain and others that have been preserved, stored, cut up, hidden and sometimes taken out at conferences and fondled.

Parts of the book were strangely funny. Like, the woman who arranged for Dr. Harvey to talk to a group of high school students and parade the brain around in front of them. Or, the man in China, who idolized Einstein and had plans for an Einstein Museum; he took the journalist out for a night on the town complete with karaoke. A visit with the writer William S. Burroughs who is rather eccentric himself was another funny moment.

Then there were the somewhat sickening moments. The vivid description of the autopsy process including the moment when the brain was exposed and then removed. The smell of the formaldehyde. The gelatinous pieces of brain as they quivered and vibrated when the Tupperware was repositioned for a better view. Yuck!

Toward the end of the book, mention was made of a Canadian scientist who published findings about Einstein’s brain: “Einstein’s interior parietal lobe, the region that governs mathematical ability and spatial reasoning is 15% larger than normal, while his Sylvian fissure is much smaller than average, suggesting an interconnection of neurons that may have allowed the scientist’s brain to work more effectively.” Where did she get this data? Did Dr. Harvey lend her the brain? What does this really tell us?

Throughout the book were biographical tidbits regarding Einstein’s life. He was married twice, had several children and perhaps a love child. He died overwrought with doubt that his theory was indeed complete and worried it would not hold up over time. Guilt that he encouraged President Roosevelt to develop the bomb. All in all, he was not a happy person. Driven by his work. Never really in love.

The scorn I felt for Dr. Harvey throughout the reading was tempered only slightly when it became apparent the mere possession of the brain held a gargantuan meaning for whoever bears this burden. When Plan A, granddaughter in California, didn’t work out, Dr. Harvey passed the brain on to his successor at Princeton Hospital. The new curator seemed equally encumbered by the weight of his load.

What I could not get over was the lack of respect for a human being who had died. Einstein or not, this was a man who was not treated well. For someone whose brain we revered so, we certainly didn’t give him the deference he deserved. Whatever great thoughts were going on in the brain of this ingenious man, those attributes left him when he died. The physical brain did not contain the essence of the man.

Talk about having something take on a life of its own. Well, that’s Einstein’s brain. The fact that the doctor never did a lick of research or study on the brain was amazing in itself. What did he think he would glean from it anyway? Its interesting the value we put onto things especially when there’s no way we can hold onto or capture them. Ah, mankind. We are such a funny, sad species.

 

 

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