Executive Perspective

Einstein’s Brain

by Paul D. Houston

On April 16, 1955, Albert Einstein died of heart failure in Princeton, N.J. Given the heart he had, it is hard to imagine it failing, but sometimes the physical lets the metaphysical down.

What I have always found interesting was that when doctors performed an autopsy on Einstein, shortly thereafter they discovered his brain was missing. Apparently it was removed during the autopsy so it could be studied and was misplaced. I’ll leave it to you to think about the irony of that.

As we know, Einstein is considered the great genius of the 20th century, and some scientist thought that by examining his brain we might learn the secret to his intelligence. Now I am confident we are all grateful that Einstein died before they removed his brain for study. If he were living in our current era, with our obsession for data, someone might have come up with the bright idea of removing his brain so we could weigh it, even if he were still using it.

In education, it’s long-standing joke that we pull up the trees to see if the roots are growing, so measuring someone’s brain doesn’t seem like a far leap.

Measuring Imagination From what I understand, when doctors examined Einstein’s brain, they found it quite ordinary. It wasn’t much larger or more developed in any significant way than most people’s brains. It was just a brain like yours or mine. Yet what it accomplished was quite extraordinary. Einstein once said: “If one studies too zealously, one easily loses his pants.” I suspect the doctor who removed the brain came to understand the wisdom of that thought.

 

Einstein also said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” I wonder what he would have thought of current education reform efforts. Certainly we are putting a premium on knowledge, particularly discreet bits of knowledge—but what about imagination? We can’t measure imagination. Einstein pointed out that “it would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”

Not everything that can be measured matters. Certainly our emphasis on rigor would have puzzled him. He offered that “teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not a hard duty.”

It strikes me that much of Einstein’s genius came from his ability to look at the universe and see it differently—with imagination. In the lexicon of brain research, you might say that he was a “lateral thinker.” He made unusual connections and was able to take immense complexity and make sense of it. For example, his explanation of his theory of relativity is a classic: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes. When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours. That is relativity.”

While Einstein is remembered for his scientific and mathematical genius, it was his insights into the human condition that always struck me. He once observed that “only two things are infinite—the universe and human stupidity—and I’m not sure about the former.” He was referring to humans’ penchant for war. Einstein was deeply opposed and spoke out against it with power. He once said: “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake; since for him the spinal cord would suffice. … It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”

Of course, it must be remembered that he fled Germany before the Nazis assumed power and later saw the work of his theories create the basis for the nuclear age. So he had convictions about war that were profoundly held. He offered that he didn’t know with what “weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Battles and Wars I suspect most of us have a higher tolerance for war than Einstein, but then again none of us are Einsteins, are we?

 

As I was thinking about him, I found myself thinking about the Vietnam War, a time when our nation’s collective brain seemed to have been removed. The fact that my brain jumped from Einstein to Vietnam either makes me a lateral thinker or a random one.

Specifically I was reminded of the Tet offensive, which took place toward the end of the war. What some of us remember is that it was the turning point that convinced most Americans it was time to end the war and come home. What is so interesting is that, militarily, the Tet offensive waged by the Communist insurgents was a miserable failure for them. The Americans and their allies won that battle decisively—with a significant kill ratio in favor of our troops. Yet the fact the enemy could mount such an operation and was willing to do so and to take the losses they took disheartened us and led to our wanting the war to cease. It was a classic case of winning the battle and losing the war.

As we work on education reform, we must guard against the possibility of winning the battle and losing the war. We can raise test scores without increasing intelligence. As we gather data and examine our students’ brains, we must not fail to consider the human cost involved and to understand that we are educating more than brains—we are also educating their hearts.

Einstein once said “there are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Our children are first and foremost miracles and deserve so much more than merely having their brains measured and weighed. We also must see their hearts don’t fail them, and that will take imagination from all of us.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.