A Grey Matter: Dead Thinkers’ Brains

The Disappointing Afterlife of Great Brains

Do extraordinary minds make for extraordinary brain tissue? Is it true that bigger really means better? Here, we look at the habit of researchers to cut open dead scientists and philosophers in order to pickle and preserve their brains.

Many of these thinkers didn’t explicitly consent to having their brain prodded and dissected, and the phenomenon throws up interesting debates around who owns what after a death, including the question of whether scientific research should always be favoured over the simple question of ethics. Look out – where will your brain end up after you die?

Planning with science in mind

Charles Babbage was one of the guys who actually requested for his brain to be taken out and preserved. Mathematician, philosopher and, using the indispensable research of Ada Lovelace, mechanical engineer of the first programmable computer, Babbage himself decided that his brain should be donated to science after his death. In a letter his son Henry sent along with the brain when it was donated, it’s made clear that Babbage had bargained for his brain’s illustrious and educational afterlife:

The brain should be known as his, and disposed of in any manner which you consider most conducive to the advancement of human knowledge and the good of the human race.’

Now, one half of Babbage’s brain is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and the other half is on display in the Science Museum in London. At the Science Museum, Babbage’s brain is kept unceremoniously in a jar. As for the ‘advancement of human knowledge’, Babbage’s brain matter hasn’t yet revealed anything new in the world of neuroscience research. Though, Babbage’s brain now offers two lovely days out.

The case of Einstein

Not all great thinkers’ consented to having their brains probed after they died. One of the most famous and contested cases is the matter of Einstein’s lobes. Great at quantum physics and exceptional at moustaches, after he died Einstein’s brain ended up at the centre of a near-kidnapping case.

Stored in various mayonnaise jars and medical slides, Einstein’s brain was divided into 240 separate chunks by a rogue pathologist who had the intention of publishing the remarkable findings he thought he was going to find.

The brain and the pathologist fell under the radar for 25 years, with no papers being published. During those years, Dr Thomas Harvey worked with some of the big shots in the emerging neuropathology world of the ‘50s to no avail. It seemed that Einstein’s brain was no different to all other mediocre, non-genius brains.

What can a dead thinker’s brain tell us about intelligence?

Not much, it seems. Though, Einstein’s brain is still being dug for leads which could explain intelligence. As recently as 2012, Einstein’s brain has been used for speculative research. Dean Falk worked with photos of the brain and found that Einstein had an extra ridge on his mid-frontal lobe, the part used for making plans and the working memory. Most people have three ridges but Einstein had four.

Throughout the brain’s afterlife, the numerous research has been largely selective, with a high volume of tests being carried out on different sections of the brain. It may have been a case of researchers waiting for exceptional differences to turn up, worthy of an exceptional thinker.

The 17th century French philosopher René Descartes has also been the subject of unconsenting brain archaeology. Now turned to dust, researchers were still able to scan the inside of his skull to get a look at his grey matter. Monsieur Descartes, most famous for his trailblazing aphorism “I think, therefore I am, his formulation of the fact we can doubt many things except our own mind’s existence, was appropriately subject to a brain scan.

Just like the debacle over Einstein’s near-kidnap and the decades of speculative research it resulted in, the researchers in this latest study concluded that – for the most part – René Descartes had quite a mundane brain. In any case, there’s still debate over which one of a potential five skulls actually belongs to the great philosopher.

Will your brain be useful after you die?

Whether these thinkers explicitly consented to having their brains prodded, dissected and divided or not, the science world was enthusiastic to peer inside. Only Charles Babbage had consented to have his looked at, and it remains whether the science world crossed an ethical line with Einstein’s. 

Perhaps the case may be made that such exceptional thinkers should be a kind of public property and, anyway, most of them are pretty ancient. Whatever side of the debate you lie on, the results of the experiments proved inconclusive and the explanation behind intelligence still remains a mysterious one.

If you have demonstrated particular promise in the areas of quantum physics, computers or even the incoherent ramblings of a potentially era-defining theory of consciousness, then be warned – your brain might be of interest to researchers, whether you plan for your send off or not.

If you would like to donate any organs after you die, including your brain, then take a look at our article on the kinds of tissue and organ you can donate, as well as an in-depth look at the whole process here.

Leave a Reply 0 comments