The Anatomical Theater: Brain (Part 1)

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity posits the curvature of spacetime, caused by the presence of mass, creates gravity.  If massive objects change this curvature, then a wave should be produced.  Yet, Einstein doubted whether scientific technology could develop to the degree necessary to create an extremely sensitive measurement.  That seemed to be the case, until news arrived last week with conclusive evidence of the passing of gravitational waves through earth.

Which leads us to Albert Einstein’s brain.  A simple enough statement, but words immediately conjuring connotations: genius, perfection, mystery, theft.  Hugh Aldersey-Williams in Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body narrates a slight change to Einstein’s wishes to be cremated.

For at some time during that early Sunday morning, Harvey, acting on his own initiative and without permission from the family, removed Einstein’s brain from the skull where it had resided so profitably for seventy-six years and set it aside for examination.  (112)

What follows has Einstein’s brain set in a preserving liquid, measured and photographed, then cut into 240 numbered pieces.  Dr. Thomas Harvey kept most of these pieces, but also sent many to colleagues and friends around the world.  Years passed, but finally Sandra Witelson at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada determined that one fact distinguished Einstein’s brain from any other brain–

Einstein’s parietal lobes were measured as being about a centimetre wider than the average of Witelson’s controls.  Unlike all the other male brains–and unlike another fifty-six female brains also examined–Einstein’s brain also appeared to be missing a feature known as the parietal operculum, a strip of tissue bordering the lateral sulcus, one of the major clefts that divides the brain into its component lobes.  Without this, the Canadian scientists speculated, Einstein’s parietal lobes were able to expand beyond the usual size, and to abut more closely with other regions of the brain, with which they may have built an unusual number of neural connections. (113)

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There’s the parietal lobe, but what follows?  Nothing conclusive may be drawn about Einstein’s brain, except possibly having more neural connections may connect to Einstein’s outstanding achievements.  In fact, what do we really know about the brain? This most intimate part of us seems to resemble a cartographic puzzle of the known and unknown as with this map drawn by Olaus Magnus of Nordic countries in 1539.

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Here’s a land mass named “Islandia,” here’s one without a name, and here’s a creature that may live in the depths but we’re not really sure.  Mapping offers a figurative approach to how scientists pursue the landscape and seascape of the brain.  There’s what we’ve named and we believe reveals a reality, maybe only a perception; here’s what we haven’t named but we know or think we know it’s there; and here’s where we offer imaginative conjectures.

The undiscovered continent, good enough, but what does that tell us about the mind. Where am I in a genome?  Let’s consider a conversation between a neuroscientist, Paul Changeux, and a philosopher, Paul Ricoeur in What Makes Us Think?

Changeux: It is, of course, true that a person’s individual history, the memories accumulated during childhood together with the course of one’s affective life, give each person’s experience a particular “color,” “tone,” or “value”; but this owes nothing to some elusive metaphysics.  It has to do instead with an epigenetic signature stabilized in our patterns of cerebral organization and acquired by each person over the course of his or her life.  

Ricoeur: If I had to claim a philosophical ancestor it would be Spinoza, whom you have mentioned already.  For him the unity of substance was to be sought at a much higher level, which in Book I of the Ethics he calls Deus sive natura. Either I speak the language of the body, a finite mode of discourse, which for Spinoza was that of space; or I speak the language of thought, a distinct finite mode, which he persisted in calling the soul.  I speak both languages without, however, being able to merge them.  Whence my question: does any knowledge that I may have of the brain add to the knowledge I have of myself simply through direct acquaintance with my body, without knowing anything about my brain?  (18, 20)

There’s the question, what is added to who I am by knowing how I am as an inner organ, as a brain?  We’ll pursue this question further in upcoming posts, but for now what Albert, Einstein, Allan Jones, Baruch Spinoza, Paul Changeux and Paul Ricouer explore appears to return us to a parable Plato offered us in The Republic.  Bon Appétit!

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