How to Think Like Einstein

By on February 17, 2017

A lot of people who are interested in brain training or nootropics will focus on aspects like memory, focus or verbal fluency. That’s all cool for sure, but what I find much more interesting, are things like creativity, insight and the ability to view the world in unique ways. I’d rather think like Einstein than Eddie Mora (the Limitless guy)…

Albert Einstein is widely considered to be one of the greatest thinkers of all time and certainly his contributions to science and many other areas of human understanding have been hugely impactful. What’s also unique about Einstein though, is that within 8 hours of his death, his brain was removed for research and study. That’s pretty morbid, but also cool in a science fiction kind of way…

Einstein

Since then, Einstein’s brain has been used to support numerous theories regarding the nature of intelligence and insight. Indeed, several irregularities in Einstein’s brain appear to give hints as to what gave him his superior intellect and possibly even how we can try to develop that kind of thinking ourselves.

So, what can we learn from Einstein’s unique and interesting brain? How can we think like Einstein?

Einstein’s Global Brain Connectivity

One of the leading theories of intelligence is that it is largely predicted by something known as ‘global brain connectivity’ (1). This is the connectivity of different brain regions, which may help us to better use them in conjunction. Likewise, connecting disparate ideas is one proposed theory of creativity. It’s even been suggested that cross brain between different brain areas could be the basis for consciousness (2). Einstein indeed demonstrated signs of greater ‘global brain connectivity’ with overdeveloped inferior parietal lobes. This is part of the ‘association cortex’, a region of the brain responsible for incorporating and synthesizing the information provided by other areas of the brain (4) –  definitely interesting! (And also definitely something I’ll need to look at further in future…)

Not only were Einstein’s inferior parietal lobes more developed but they were also oddly shaped with a relatively shallow cleave between the two hemispheres (a feature called the ‘Sylvian Fissue’). This might suggest that the two sides were better able to communicate.

Einstein’s brain also demonstrates other signs of greater connectivity. He appeared to have more cortical grey matter for instance (generally more neurons) as well as a thicker corpus callosum. This is a band of nerves that crosses between the two hemispheres of the brain to carry information from one side to the other. Once more, this suggests that Einstein’s brain was capable of greater synergy between regions.

PromoteSynergy

‘Modular’ theories like Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences suggests that different brain areas are specialized for certain tasks and that you can be either a ‘musical genius’ a ‘mathematical genius’ or another kind of specialist.

What’s interesting, is that the inferior parietal lobes are also thought to be ‘seats of spatial and mathematical reasoning’ (5), showing that Einstein was a specialist in some senses. Meanwhile, Einstein showed relative deficits in other aspects of cognition – famously he apparently didn’t speak until the age of 3!

Einstein’s brain then shows specialism toward maths and spatial reasoning but also greater connectivity throughout those areas and others. It appears that he had superior visualization skills and more tools to understand

In Einstein’s Own Words

Einstein actually describes how he came up with his theory of special relativity:

“If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating.

There seems to be no such thing, however, neither on the basis of experience nor according to Maxwell’s equations.

From the very beginning it appeared to me intuitively clear that, judged from the standpoint of such an observer, everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the earth, was at rest. For how should the first observer know or be able to determine, that he is in a state of fast uniform motion?

One sees in this paradox the germ of the special relativity theory is already contained.”

In other words, he actually visualized travelling at light speed and intuited from that, what he should see and what observers should see! Here, he used his visualization in conjunction with other parts of his brain to create a cohesive image of how the universe worked. Why didn’t we think of that?

think like einstein

Einstein used a similar strategy when extending his view of special relativity to gravity, when he had what he describes as the ‘happiest thought of [his] life’. (Sweet)

This time, Einstein imagined a man falling off of a roof and realized that the man wouldn’t feel his own weight until the moment he hit the ground. This allowed him to extend relativity to gravity and thus his ‘general theory of relativity’ was born!

The point is, Einstein’s own words seem to support the findings we’ve made regarding the structure of his brain: he used a kind of visual, mathematical intuition.

The Default Mode Network

So, what can we learn from this? And how can we attain some of Einstein’s genius for ourselves?

Well firstly, we need to relax.

One reason that global brain connectivity might be related to inventiveness and creativity, is that it allows us to draw together disparate ideas and concepts to create original ideas. It is thought that creativity essentially amounts to recombining existing information in novel ways.

In order to allow our brains to explore disparate ideas and to let our imaginations go to work, it is important that we give ourselves the opportunity to let our minds wander. When we are highly focussed, we tend to see increased activation in certain brain areas only. In fact, in a ‘flow state’ (which essentially amounts to ‘positive fight or flight’), the prefrontal cortex of the brain shuts down entirely (called ‘temporal hypofrontality’). It is not useful to be daydreaming about the nature of the universe when you’re being chased by a lion!

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Walking is a great way to let the ideas come…

Conversely, if you busy yourself with mundane work, or go for a walk, then this gives your mind the opportunity to wander and to be more creative. This has also been attributed to some of Einstein’s success; he was famously doing ‘repetitive work’ at the patent office when he came up with many of his early theories!

This is why it bothers me a little when everyone stresses how bad it is to ‘be in your own head’ and how you should be more ‘present’ and ‘in the moment’. There are definite benefits to daydreaming!

Building Your Perfect Brain

If we really wanted to emulate the way that Einstein thought though, then we could go one step further and try to physically change the structure of our brains.

Brain plasticity describes our brain’s ability to change shape and grow in response to the way we use it. Just as you can build bigger biceps by doing curls, you might be able to build a bigger inferior parietal lobe by visualizing the universe more!

You could even postulate that Einstein’s brain was only the shape it was because he was so preoccupied with that kind of thought (although I rather suspect that he would have been at least somewhat genetically predisposed…).

My point is though, that in theory, there’s no reason you couldn’t train the relevant areas of your brain that are now suggested to be associated with this kind of thinking.

I’ve spoken on this blog before about the power of visualization training – that visualization is an important skill that you can use to improve your spatial understanding, memory, navigation skills and other abilities. There are exercises you can do to train this. Likewise, in my post on developing your senses like Daredevil, I discussed how you could try and think of your senses in a more ‘cross modal’ manner, and how this can actually make them more powerful at painting a picture of the world.

 

think like sheldon

Also: think like Sheldon…

Computer games have also been shown to boost spatial reasoning and of course learning maths will also help you think more like Einstein! Especially if you start out with a conscious intention to consider maths using your spatial intuition.

Then there’s ambidexterity training, which we know can thicken your corpus callosum!

There are even things you can do to heighten your brain plasticity. Lately, this is something I’ve been giving more thought to. I’ve been experimenting with magnesium threonate (6) for example and Lion’s Mane.

Keep Learning!

More importantly, I’ve been considering just how important it is to keep learning and to keep exposing yourself to novel stimuli. It’s common knowledge that the brain is at its most plastic by far when we are young children. This is why children find it (relatively) simple to pick up new languages.

People seem to assume that children have a somehow ‘different’ brain and that a flip switches when they reach adulthood to make them less plastic – just as the growth plates close over at a certain age.

But in my opinion, it’s more likely that the child’s brain is the way it is, simply as a response to the huge amount of novel stimuli that they are bombarded with. A neonate is forced to learn how to make sense of everything all at once: they are using their senses for the first time, learning to navigate their environments, learning to stand up, discovering how to communicate…

And we know that when we learn new things, we produce more BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor – one of the key neurotransmitters involved in plasticity (7)). The child’s brain is learning so much that it is awash with these neurotransmitters. Their brain is forced to adapt to stand any chance of survival!

polymath

We’ll never be able to recreate those conditions as adults (although entering novel worlds through virtual reality could offer one option…) and I’m not suggesting this would even be a good idea. All I’m saying is that if you keep learning, keep discovering and keep using your brain, then you’ll ensure your brain stays in ‘learning mode’ and you’ll find it much easier to pick up other new tasks. And it’s not just about learning either, but constantly subjecting yourself to new experiences, new sights and new environments. Don’t let your brain grow stale!

In my post on the nature of intelligence, I discussed that intelligence is possibly born of plasticity + training. Keep your brain plastic and train!

The Prescription

So, in order to think like Einstein, we would need to:

  • Develop brain plasticity
  • Practice visualization training
  • Practice ‘whole brain thinking’
  • Practice ambidexterity to improve communication across hemispheres
  • Relax, go for walks, engage in mundane tasks with distraction and let your mind wander!

Of course, that is not to say that Einstein’s way of thinking was necessarily superior. We are all different and we all have different skills and passions. Instead, use this knowledge of how we might be able to change the structure of our brains to simply develop the best version of your current brain!

Let me know when you complete your theory of everything…

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.