Albert Einstein: the creative brain

Albert Einstein is perhaps the most famous creative figure of science in recent times. Everybody knows his name and most people know his famous equation, E=MC2, which has crept into popular culture in films, books, comics and even pop songs.

There is debate about whether Einstein was born creative or whether his lifetime of work moulded his brain into a creative powerhouse. In the 1950s, he took part in some experiments to check what was going on in his brain while he did maths, but the technology of the time could not find any differences between the great man and anybody else.

After his death, his brain was removed and the few parts that have been examined revealed that Einstein had a much larger proportion of glial cells to regular neurons than most people. These glial cells help maintain, order and connect the neurons, acting like electrical technicians. So it has been concluded that the number of glial cells helped Einstein to make unusual connections across ideas, as did his enlarged corpus callosum which exchanges messages across the two brain hemispheres. The two parietal lobes that control mathematical and spatial concepts were 15% larger than in most brains, though the overall brain was average size. The fact that Einstein had dyslexia and spoke very late also suggests that his right brain hemisphere was not dominated by the language biased left side and so this allowed him to develop a much more visual and spatial way of thinking. But was he born with this brain structure or did neuroplasticity shape it this way because of a lifetime of thinking creatively?

What we do know for sure about Einstein from his own words and the people that were around him all suggest highly typical practices and habits of a creative person.

To start with Einstein was known for his ability to concentrate for hours and to work on a problem long-term, sometimes over decades. He said that for every one correct answer he had he made “ninety-nine mistakes”, but he did not give up on problems and demonstrated that, like other creative people, he would work on a question until he was satisfied with his answer. What bothered him most were problems in science when the understood laws of physics seemed irregular or contradictory. He knew this could not be correct yet he often came to his own answers intuitively, sensing that he was right. But scientifically proving these solutions could take many years of persistence. Some (such as gravitational waves) have only been proved recently, many years after his death.

When creating his own work, he used as a foundation theories from maths and science in conjunction with philosophical and humanistic theories, combining ideas to see a bigger picture, which again is a typical cross-disciplinary trait amongst successful creative figures. He saw problems in science from a different perspective than his colleagues, often from a much wider and more foundational or what we would call today “disruptive” angle. He was concerned with asymmetry or dubious aspects of theories and wanted to address these problems to make them fit with other known physics, often angering his colleagues when he challenged or completely overthrew the physics status quo. When he published his theoretical ideas he often wrote in a way that did not use the conventions of other scientists of the day. This may have been because of his working background outside of the sciences or may have simply been due to his dislike of the written word and preference for visual thinking. Crucially, as a young man he worked at the Berne Patents Office for over a decade, being exposed on a daily basis to innovation and creative suggestions. He had to judge the newness or derivative aspects of these applications so became highly expert in the critical evaluation of ideas and this practice of evaluation and being exposed to the innovative and the novel may well have trained his mind to make analysis and evaluation as well as being more open to new ideas and concepts.

Einstein reported that he thought in imagery and “musical architecture”. In order to gain solutions to problems he pictured hypothetical situations, such as himself riding a light wave or he imagined moving away from the clock tower in Berne at the speed of light. In this way he could “see” answers. He called these fantasy or day-dreaming methods “thought experiments” and his knowledge of philosophy helped with this. He was good at coming up with analogies and imagery to explain his ideas to others and he said that he could only put his concepts into words with some difficulty.

Visualising was very important to Einstein and one of his many inspirational quotes emphasises this. He is also well known for commenting that imagination is more important than knowledge.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere”.

Einstein was a good violinist and pianist and he felt that if he was not a physicist he would have been a musician. He often got ideas when relaxing playing his violin; an action typical of the creative stages of Incubation and Illumination. Musical and maths abilities often occur together. He wrote to his young son that learning music and carpentry was “better than school” and that when learning the piano the child should “mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal.”

It might be suggested that Einstein had such stature in popular culture as well as in science because he was well-known for being playful and full of curiosity. He recommended that people keep the outlook of wonder and curiosity of a child and he asked child-like questions. To stop questioning or to lose curiosity was the worst possible fate for him. He also urged people to play as much as possible to satisfy their curiosity. Moreover he was a pacifist and was appalled that his own work had eventually led to the making of nuclear bombs. He had a witty, amorous and eccentric personality, giving up socks, wearing old clothes “for thinking” and never combing his mad professor hair.

So, for now, the jury is still out about whether Einstein grew his brain, through neuroplasticity, to the shape it became or whether he was born already extra creative. Either way, his behaviour makes a good example of a very creative mentor.

“Learn from yesterday,” he said, “live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

It is up to you to wear socks or not!


If you’d like to know more about creative people, their creative brains, or how to be one of them yourself, you might like Creative Training: How to be More Creative.

Image credit: Albert Einstein, official 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics photograph. Wikimedia Commons




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