Sometimes bigger really is better - but does the size of the brain, or brain bumps, mean what we think? When it comes to complex brain functions, it’s good to remember the old saying: “the map is not the territory”.
This past month we learned a bit more about Albert Einstein’s brain, as previously unpublished photos and a new analysis revealed more hints about what made him special – including unusual features of his prefrontal, somatosensory and motor cortices. It’s tempting to think that by examining his brain we can fathom the kernel of Einstein’s great intelligence and creativity from the external bumps and grooves on its surface, and perhaps we will gain some insight into the anatomic foundations of his mind.
But do these features matter as much as we think? Brain size, in particular, can be misleading. The sperm whale has a large and convoluted brain (the largest of any mammal), and cetaceans are clearly intelligent creatures – but are they more so than was Einstein, who had a much smaller brain that was not remarkable for its overall size (Figure 1)? It’s not a question we can easily answer because whales and Einsteins do different things with their brains, just as different people do – which brings us to a man whose brain was bigger than Einstein’s, but chose a dark path.
In the Wilder Brain Collection in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University, there lies under glass one brain among 70 others whose story speaks to another riddle of structure and function having to do with the mysterious relationship between intelligence and morality. This brain belonged to a man who died in 1871 named Edward H. Rulloff (Figure 2).According to the newspapers and other accounts of the time, Rulloff had a very large brain. In fact, at 1673g (or nearly a half gallon), it was one of the largest human brains ever measured. Compared with the average male brain size of ~1300g, the difference is roughly the volume of a can of soda. That may not seem like very much – until you consider stuffing a soda can into your cranium. And yes, Rulloff’s brain was bigger than Einstein’s, which was rather average with regard to weight at 1230g (and even considering that Einstein’s brain might have once been much larger than it was at his death at age 76, since the brain can shrink significantly as we get older).
Rulloff’s huge noggin was impressive in the twilight of phrenology, a pseudoscience that used bumps and grooves on the skull as indicators of behavioral traits. He was said to be a genius. Though he had received no formal education, he was a self taught linguist who was reported to have mastered several languages. He even supposedly authored a scholarly work on the subject called the Method in the Formation of Language, and scholars came from all over to be in his presence. Richard Henry Mather, a professor of Greek and German at Amherst College, noted after visiting Rulloff that in addition to an impressive memory enabling him to recall ancient literary works in the original language, his “…subtlety of analysis and reasoning were the marked characteristic of his mind”. But Rulloff was also something of a con man. At one point, without any formal training he set himself up as a teacher, a physician and finally as his own lawyer – because apparently back then one could get away with doing such things.
We know about Edward Rulloff’s brain mainly because of the things he didn’t get away with. He did hard time at Sing Sing and various other prisons and jails for crimes both minor and major. Among Rulloff’s alleged offenses was the murder of his own wife and small child, and while he managed to elude full responsibility for that, he was eventually arrested and stood trial for the murder of Frederick A. Merrick, a shopkeeper he shot during the commission of a robbery.
Rulloff’s trial became a media event and a vehicle for his notoriety - his genius evoking a sense among the public of wasted talent (and yes, weariness) that is reminiscent of the first O.J. Simpson trial, in part because of newspaper coverage and certain readers who began to follow the story. One in particular was among our greatest American authors – Mark Twain (Figure 3).
Twain wrote an editorial published in the New York Tribune in May of 1871, arguing that
Rulloff should be spared the death penalty because, in his words, “…half the mystery of his strange powers is yet a secret”. As with most things having to do with Twain his editorial was a satirical piece, and he went on to promise, “…that I will instantly bring forth a man, who in the interest of learning and science, will take Rulloff’s crime upon himself and submit to be hanged in Rulloff’s place.” (In an accompanying note to the editor he stated that the real objective of the article was to get people to talk about the death penalty). Despite this plea, and Rulloff’s efforts to save his own life, his notoriety began to work against him – it seemed the more people found out about him, the less they cared for his villainous and duplicitous personality.
Rulloff was convicted and sentenced to death. As a death row inmate, he was neither contrite nor resigned to his fate. Toward the end he was given to streams of profanity, all the while lamenting that if only he had more time, he would finish his great intellectual work, his “Method” – in what must have been a truly unique death row appeal. On May 18th, 1871, his time ran out, and he was hanged for his crimes. In a final bit of bluster, he’s reported to have said “Hurry it up! I want to be in hell in time for dinner!”
The drama didn’t end there. The newspaper account of the “autopsy” of Edward Rulloff reads a bit like a scene from Young Frankenstein. It seems Rulloff ‘s head was not only huge, but his skull was also exceedingly thick – “a natural helmet that would have defied the force of any pistol bullet”. Rulloff’s brain was removed, and eventually came into the possession of Burt Green Wilder, a former Civil War physician who retained the head but buried the body.
Rulloff’s brain now sits in a glass jar, pickled for over 140 years. A restaurant in Ithaca bears his name. I could not find a copy of Rulloff’s book anywhere (you know, the Method that he touted as proof of his genius – the best I could find is a brief snippet of the idea from a newspaper article), or even a reference to it ever having been published. The only remaining artifact of Rulloff’s reported genius appears to be his enormous brain. In fact, Edward Crapsey, a reporter for the New York Times at the time, seems to have seen through Rulloff, and found him to be a fraud and a pretender, though others questioned the evidence against him. In an email communication to me, Richard Bailey, a Rulloff biographer, summed it up very simply, “Rulloff was a crackpot philologist and a bad man” – a bad man with a very big brain.
Richard Mather mused after his visit with Rulloff that, “…we must educate the heart as fast as we educate the head, or our knowledge may only increase our sin.” Of course, this advice would not have helped Edward Rulloff in the least. He was if nothing else, in the end, a self-made man.
These days, it’s better understood that size is less important than the network of fine synaptic connections and circuits within the brain. The size and surface topology of the brain can reflect these connections, but the relationship is at best indirect and mutable. In the case of Albert Einstein, our interpretation of a bump on his brain also suffers from a chicken-and-egg problem: did his years of effort and intense engagement with high level problems remodel his brain - or was this extra neural real estate there from birth, his abilities springing from this enhanced anatomy? Is this bonus real estate additive, or did these larger areas simply resist shrinking as much with age because he remained mentally active? (And, in the most recent study, what are we to make of the larger portion of cortex devoted to his tongue?)
The remodeling of the brain, called plasticity, also introduces a new wrinkle. There are numerous examples of the importance of plasticity in the recovery from brain injury and after surgeries. Studies in ferrets have even shown that the cerebral cortex can be dramatically remodeled, including rewiring of primary auditory cortex to respond to vision, which isn’t ordinarily processed by that area. All this plasticity means that Einstein’s postmortem brain at 76 may have been like a faded snapshot - different than his brain in 1905 at the age of 26, his “miracle year” when he published 4 papers, on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the relationship between mass and energy.
Is the intelligence of an Einstein, or the evil of a Rulloff something that can be pinned to a specific brain area? Is genius all analytical, or a mix of analytics and art stretched out over the network canvas of the brain, seasoned with dogged persistence? Einstein’s own descriptions of his mental process could be rather vague, and he is said to have offered that “the greatest scientists are artists as well”. Is some of his unusual brain anatomy due to the fact that he was a musician, as well as a physicist?
Reading Einstein’s brain bumps is fraught with the same challenge that reading any map provides. Alfred Korzybski was a philosopher and scientist who held that our models and maps of the world are limited by our own mental processes. For example, reading a highway map provides a basic layout of streets, but not the street level details that may be important (pot holes to avoid, or good restaurants to visit). And brains are more complicated than streets – so when it comes to the function of the brain and the distributed nature of consciousness, Korzybski’s maxim that “the map is not the territory” applies when considering whether the size of the brain, or a bump in a particular area really means what we think (Figure 4).
And in the end, if we can’t discern something basic like good or evil from the gross anatomy of the brain of a Rulloff, how easy can it be to localize the area responsible for relativity in an Einstein? We need to be thankful that we have an opportunity to know more about Einstein’s brain, which through its postmortem adventures could have been lost to us entirely – but reserve a healthy skepticism in the face of inevitable neurohype.
Note: Portions of this essay were previously published in “The Neurotransmitter” (2009) issue 3: p.8, a newsletter published by the Western North Carolina Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience.