July 11, 2018

“Curiouser and Curiouser” — A Journey to the Center of Planet Einstein

By Stuart Mitchner

The recent media-driven erosion of the warm and fuzzy even saintly image of Princeton’s most famous resident has me thinking how differently we’d feel about Einstein if his public persona was as remote, as unknowable, as alien to most of us as the anatomy of his brain. What if there had been no beloved humanitarian to serve as a foil for stories like “Einstein the Anti-Racist? Not in His Travel Diaries” in the June 14 New York Times?

It was the image of Einstein’s face on the cover of Frederick E. Lepore’s Finding Einstein’s Brain (Rutgers Univ. Press $27.95) that suggested the austere scientist I was imagining as the polar opposite of the lovable mascot Einstein of Pi Day Princeton. Those eyes seem light-years away from our reality, “on another planet,” as the saying goes. The cool grey blue color contributes to the effect, which is further developed in the image of the brain on the back cover with the folds and fissures scientist-explorers have taken it upon themselves to tag with
geographically derived names like “right hemispheric primary motor cortex” and “postcentral sulcus.”

Readers looking for an atlas that locates the cerebral latitude and longitude of Einstein’s genius or his humanitarianism are reminded throughout the book that this can’t be done. As Lepore makes clear in the preface, his subject is a “biography” of the brain rather than the literal search for an entity that has been, in effect, scattered to the ends of the earth in “set after set of brain slices … mounted on microscope slides” by Thomas Harvey MD, chief pathologist at Princeton Hospital and the first human to set foot, as it were, on the planet of Einstein’s brain. “What did the ‘best and brightest’ neuroscientists do (or not do), with Einstein’s brain for over 50 years?” Lepore asks. “And why (at the time of this writing) is the brain lost again?” No wonder Lepore alludes in the previous paragraph to “the grin that remained after the Cheshire Cat had ‘vanished quite slowly.’” When it comes to the geography of the brain, we’re wandering on the other side of the Looking Glass, lost in Wonderland.

“To Consider Too Curiously”

Lepore’s account of Harvey “opening the cranium with a saw” on the morning of April 18, 1955, and lifting the “gelantinous brain up from the cranial vault” brings to mind Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull in his hand, that “fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” As he conducts a philosophical tour of the graveyard at Elsinore for his friend Horatio, Hamlet wonders “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?” Ever humane and level-headed, Horatio tells him, “’Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.”

Being himself a man of most excellent fancy, Hamlet persists, describing his process with mock-scientific logic: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?”

There’s an element of Horatio’s “to consider too curiously” in Lepore’s cautionary warning that “dry scientific jargon will suck the oxygen out of the fragile atmosphere that surrounds an interested audience.” After noting that “standard issue” human frontal lobes “have three gyri,” and that Einstein, “with his anomalous divided gyrus had four!” [emphasis is the author’s], Lepore tells us “to regard this startling variation of anatomy strictly as a fascinating example of structural biology and not a surrogate for Einstein’s intellect” or “his profound grasp of our universe,” since “not a shred of scientific evidence exists today that will allow us to bridge the explanatory gap between brain and mind.” In case you’re wondering, the gyri Einstein had four of is plural for gyrus, a ridge on the cerebral cortex. If that leaves us no closer to solving the mystery of Einstein’s genius, it’s okay with me. Think of all the detective novels that fall apart when you come to the talky denouement. As far as that goes, what makes Shakespeare’s most famous play fascinating to this day is the mystery of Hamlet’s state of mind.

Where and What is Fancy?

In a later chapter, Lepore uses a quote from The Merchant of Venice (III, 2) to underscore the fact that “neuroscience still cannot answer Shakespeare’s basic question: ‘Tell me where is Fancy bred/Or in the heart, or in the head?’” Taking “Fancy” to mean “love” in the context of that particular scene, Lepore declares that “the localization” of fancy “was a mystery then … and it still is (even now) in the age of oxytocin (aka the ‘love hormone’).”

For Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria, fancy is “always the ape,” a mode of memory “emancipated from the order of time and space” that receives “all its materials ready made from the law of association.” After giving the reader “a cook’s tour” of the “parables of physics” associated with Einstein, Lepore suggests that “even a thoroughgoing study of Einstein’s written accounts … tells us very little about his metacognition. By necessity, preverbal mental operations must be translated into words that distort the purity of thought.” At this point, Lepore pulls a quote from T.S. Eliot out of his hat: “I gotta use words when I talk to you/But if you understand or if you don’t/that’s nothing to me and nothing to you.”

Fancy Free

Lepore uses a light touch to keep scientific jargon from “sucking the oxygen” out of the story he has to tell. He puts Coleridge’s law of association amusingly in play by having Princeton alum and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld provide the epigraph for a chapter on “what the neuropathologist knew and didn’t know” (“But there are unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know”). After referring to how “the functions of average frontral lobes ascend to the empyrean heights of our ‘gnostic, mnestic, and intellectual processes,’” Lepore surprises you with a reference to Jaws (“neuroscience is ‘gonna need a bigger boat’”). Quoting from an essay on the “inter-relation between brain size and mental capacity” of notable individuals,  Lepore reveals that Walt Whitman’s brain was unavailable for study, having been “dropped on the floor by a careless assisstant.” In the context of Einstein’s “falling man” theory of gravity, Lepore inserts a parenthetical aside “(unlike Wile E. Coyote contending with his archnemesis Roadrunner), nobody got hurt from the fall.”

However often you may lose your way on this expedition across planet Einstein, it’s good to have a man “of most excellent fancy” as your guide.

“A Hopeless Hybrid”

What put Einstein in the news in the era of #MeToo was the publication of The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein, The Far East, Palestine & Spain 1922-1923 (Princeton Univ. Press $29.95). Editor Ze’ev Rosenkrantz highlights the controversial passages in a lengthy introduction.

Of course the accounts pointing to Einstein’s racism and xenophobia have no room for gems from the diaries like “Trees wonderful: people banal.” Nor do journalists with a newsy agenda have time to augment the callous comments they quote with entries such as this one from 9 Oct. 1922: “The sun revitalizes me and removes the gulf between ‘ego’ and ‘id.’ I began reading Kretschmer’s Physique and Character. Wonderful description of temperaments and their physical habitus. I can thus categorize many of my fellow beings but not myself, because I’m a hopeless hybrid.”

As I pointed out in my preview of the Travel Diaries in a column on Einstein’s birthday, March 14, 2018, the negative remarks aren’t restricted to the Chinese or the Indians and Levantines. He’s no less dismissive of the citizens of Prague and the followers of Theosophy. Visits from Berliners are compared to “burial alive.” Even children get a knock when he talks of “my corpse being dragged to a children’s Christmas party.”

The Times story and others make much of Einstein’s claim that the Indians in Ceylon “live in great filth and considerable stench,” leaving out his observation that the same people “look like nobles transformed into beggars,” and his reaction to being transported in a rickshaw, “I was very much ashamed of myself for being complicit in such despicable treatment of human beings but couldn’t change anything …. Because these beggars in the form of kings descend in droves on any foreigner until he has surrendered to them. They know how to implore and to beg until one’s heart is shaken up …. Half-naked, they reveal their fine and yet powerful bodies and their fine, patient faces.” Then this: “Once you take a proper look at these people, you can hardly take pleasure in the Europeans any more, because they are more effete and more brutal and look so much cruder and greedier — and therein unfortunately lies their practical superiority, their ability to take on grand things and carry them out. Wouldn’t we too, in this climate, become like the Indians?”

In Meckel’s Cave

Every now and then I like to take out the clinical statement from Princeton Radiology concerning the MRI that I had some years ago and that led me, as it happens, to Frederick Lepore, who is a professor of neurology and opthamology and a practicing neurologist and clinical neural opthamalogist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick. Both as a writer and reader, I found MRI language amusing. Who’d have thought my brain had a place in it called “Meckel’s cave”? I looked it up at the time but came away with nothing but the knowledge that I preferred not to know. I had a similar reaction to the passage in Einstein’s Brain describing the “posterior ascending limb of the Sylvian fissure.” That has the sound of a storybook adventure waiting to be written. If only we could locate the human mystery — the spirit, the heart, the soul, the poetry — on a map of the brain somewhere between Meckel’s cave and the Sylvian fissure. That’s where these columns come from. Just take a right at Meckel’s cave.