Einstein’s Brain

Is This the Rosetta Stone of Creative Genius?

By Gerald Alper

On the morning of April 19, 1955, a young pathologist, Thomas Harvey, approached the dissection table in the autopsy room.  He stared at the dead man whose presence offers him “the opportunity of a lifetime.”  In the town of Princeton, where Einstein spent the last twenty-two years of his life, Harvey had come into direct contact with his celebrated patient only once during a house call, when he was standing in for a female colleague.  “I see you’ve switched genders,” Einstein quipped when he saw the doctor for the first time.  Though plainly in awe of his legendary patient, Harvey did what he always did: he asked him to hold out one of his arms.  He looked for a suitable vein, stuck a needle into the skin and drew blood into a syringe.  He gave him a glass, and asked for a urine sample and, according to Jurgen Neffe, in the stunningly original Einstein: A Biography — when Einstein returned from the bathroom and handed him the now filled glass, Harvey was thinking to himself, “This is from the greatest genius of all time.”

What happened next is the stuff of science fiction, except that it is true.  On a fateful impulse, Harvey, although he was clearly not authorized to do so, sawed off the head of the dead man and scooped out its contents.  Believing that these two and a half pounds of nerve tissue might hold the key to “understanding the greatest intellectual creative power” — thereby gaining him lasting fame — he decides to “walk off with it and never give it back.”

Amazingly, Harvey, now ninety, changes his mind and returns to the very same autopsy room in Princeton Hospital. He is at last ready to show the fruits of his lifelong study of Albert Einstein’s brain to another young doctor, Elliot Krauss, the successor to his successor in pathology.  He wants to tell how he meticulously prepared the brain, sectioned into about two hundred cubes and divided them between two heavy glass containers, now standing proudly on the steel table.

Although he does not endorse stealing Einstein’s brain, Jurgen Neffe does not blame Thomas Harvey. However misguided his actions, his alleged intention — to serve the cause of science — was in his view “noble.”  He tells this gory story in order to make what he considers a crucial point: that nearly a half century’s meticulous sectioning of Einstein’s brain in no way represented “the first step in unravelling the basis of creative genius.  Virtually all neuroanatomists, Neffe points out, discredited these studies,” calling them shoddy, unconvincing and based on false assumptions.”  Nether brain tissue nor genes, Neffe believes, can explain the vicissitudes of extraordinary creative power. “The key to understanding Einstein,” he concludes, “lies not in biology but biography.”

We remember, by way of contrast, Graham Farmello (The Strangest Man) finds the ultimate key to the prodigious achievements of Paul Dirac to lie ultimately in the recesses of his brain, in whatever abnormalities of dysfunction gave rise to the condition known as autism (working in conjunction, of course, with his admittedly awesome, technical talents).

Neffe, finding all such reductionist strategies equally futile, is as certain the answer, if there is one, must be sought in the far more comprehensive domain of biography (family influence plus culture plus natural talent).

Here we have two points of view regarding scientific achievement reflecting the common perception of a split between emotion and reason.  It will hardly surprise the reader that the writer favors the psychodynamic perspective, psychodynamic being used in the widest possible sense: a methodology that not only accepts the rigorousness of a quantitative, reductionist, approach (as in neuropsychology) but encourages it so long as there is a due regard for the oh-so-important dynamic unconscious.  The unconscious mind — that in this and in other areas — is so often denied and is the elephant in the room.


It is this dynamic unconscious that contains the wellsprings of subjectivity and is best evidenced in the pages of the great scientific biographies.  While it is practically impossible for ordinary mortals to find passion (let alone beauty) in the great equations of
physics, it is these deeply felt emotions that time and again seem to animate the true scientific genius. “I do not believe that God plays dice with the universe,” Einstein said famously on one occasion, and “the Lord is subtle, but not malicious,” on another.  Einstein is referring — not to the conventional God of the Bible — but to a Spinoza-like pantheistic harmony of nature, the kind of imagined predetermined order that he most revered. So, if it is true, that there is no God in the great equations of physics, no God of the gaps, so to speak, it is also true that there can be godlike feelings — by that I mean simply a passionate subjective reverence for the undeniably exquisite symmetries of nature — that underlie these same great equations.  It is immediately apparent that the exacting mathematical, logical structures of fundamental physics acts like a censor, filtering out any whiff of genuine subjectivity.  Yet, even though the physicist himself (or herself) may exercise every internal brake possible to shut out any psychodynamic input — to be worthy of the canonical objectivity traditionally demanded of the pure scientists — it cannot stop it from seeping through.  That is why the truly abstract genius — a Bobby Fischer in chess, an Ehrenfest in particle physics — can simultaneously achieve great things, while being plainly disturbed.  It is not that their psychodynamic unconscious is not churning out radical ideas — some of which are out of touch with reality and are the fruit of their dysfunctional personalities — but that those embarrassing and sometimes absurd ideas are ruthlessly nipped in the bud and weeded out by the intrinsic censorship that is the hallmark of rigorous, mathematical, logical domains of thought (chess, physics, etc).  Encapsulated paranoia of course is never completely encapsulated — as Freud long ago noted — it leaks out.  Or, as I might say in terms of our theme: there is no such thing as a psychodynamic-free zone of creativity.  There can not ever be pure science, pure logic.  There is always subjectivity… there is always emotion.

For readers wishing to pursue these ideas further see my new book God and therapy: What we believe when no one is watching (iBooks, Alper).

Published March 28th, 2016


Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books.  These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The PuppeteersThe Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada.  His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.