Don’t get big-headed about your big head

IOWA CITY, Iowa, (U-Wire) — If somebody appeared especially intelligent, why then, he or she must just have a big brain — perhaps larger than most. It was simple — just as a person with larger muscles can lift heavier objects, an individual with a large brain can figure out things that most others can’t, such as how to open an aspirin bottle with one of those child safety caps. Right?
Quite recently, scientists confirmed what any 10-year-old child could have guessed — that the brain of Albert Einstein, a fairly bright man, was in fact physically different from a typical brain. The section that researchers think controls mathematical reasoning was found to be about 15 percent larger than normal, enabling Einstein to figure out equations that would resemble ancient hieroglyphics to the rest of us. Furthermore, a deep groove that most people have in their brains was virtually non-existent in Einstein’s, leading the experts to assume that this allowed “different and better” thinking.
Ah, of course. You see, we love to fit things into tidy little capsules, phrases and infographics, and a group of scientists up in Canada finally gave society a concise explanation for Einstein’s intelligence: He had a big brain.
This is what Americans have waited nearly a half century for, and it is a theory that could have been deduced by some a half century before that. Around the turn of the century, a popular scientific field called phrenology was causing a stir. This was essentially the study of skull and brain size in relation to intelligence. Kind of medieval, to be sure, but scientific study was still emerging from its dark ages at the time.
Most sinister was that these studies were taken quite seriously as a means to justify racism. Groups of white Anglo-Saxon researchers concluded, surprisingly, that white Anglo-Saxons were at the top of the heap in terms of intelligence. A hierarchy was then established that placed other ethnic groups in descending order, with Native Americans and Africans toward the bottom of the barrel. Though we now know that people of all races can be both smart and stupid, this scientific myth was perpetuated widely up through Einstein’s salad days and the Nazi era in Germany, where Hitler used these reports as the scientific basis for his “final solution.”
After decades of dramatic scientific advances, however, this outmoded theory has reasserted itself through the study of Einstein’s brain. While researchers have been quick to note that brain anatomy does not necessarily determine intelligence, their findings do raise some intriguing ideas.
If parts of Einstein’s brain were what made him different, what of the many other individuals who have gained notoriety through mental quirks? The brains of Hitler and Napoleon, if they were to be examined, would probably show that the lobe governing one’s desire to conquer Europe was significantly larger than average. And if, on a later date, the brains of both Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton were studied, there could be some telling results.
In Hillary, we can be sure, the area controlling one’s affinity for the state of New York is at least 22 percent greater than normal. In her husband, the region that regulates one’s disposition toward interns would be above average as well. In individuals such as Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, the area of the brain that controls good taste and rational thought would be almost imperceptible.
Thus it stands that if scientists were to take their study of Einstein’s brain further, they might find abnormalities in some other famous brains. They could probably spend years trying to make sense out of mine. However, they probably should not turn experiments such as these into publicity stunts, lest some people get carried away with the results and resort to 19th century attitudes toward the human brain.
The truth remains, until further notice, that brain activity and development is determined more by environment and education than by physical size or other visible characteristics. Recent findings in regard to Einstein’s brain, attractive as they may be, do not reflect too strongly against this theory.
I certainly hope they do not, at least — I don’t want any third-graders knowing more about brain science than myself.

Jesse Ammerman’s column originally appeared in Wednesday’s University of Iowa paper, The Daily Iowan.