If you opened up every safety deposit box in New York City you will find some very peculiar (and many illegal) things. If the rumors are to be believed, amongst the money, drugs, and rare jewelry you will also find a pair of eyeballs. Not just any random eyeballs, Albert Einstein’s eyeballs. That’s right, Einstein’s eyes are just hanging out in someone’s personal safety deposit box in NYC. Einstein didn’t gift his eyes to anyone, they were stolen— but it wasn’t just his eyes that were stolen, his brain was too!

While Einstein was alive, he achieved major celebrity status, appearing on magazine covers and charging up to $15,000 (worth $200,000 today) for speaking appointments. Knowing his brand was powerful, he left a very chivalrous request for ALL his remains — ”cremate them and scatter the ashes secretly in order to discourage idolaters”. Einstein died in 1955 soon after a blood vessel popped near his heart. During the autopsy of his body, the pathologist on call at the hospital, Thomas Harvey, STOLE HIS BRAIN (He also stole Einstein’s eyes and gave them to Einstein’s eye doctor which is how they ended up in his safety deposit box in NYC). Maybe chivalry is dead after all.

Photo of Thomas Harvey with Einstein’s brain (Photo by Michael Brennan/Getty Images)

Harvey took Einstein’s brain to Philadelphia where he cut it into 240 pieces which he stored for decades in 2 jars in a cider box under a beer cooler. Harvey studied the organ in his free time, and in 1985 (30 years after Einstein’s death) he published the first study on Einstein’s brain. The paper isn’t a good one, and I don’t recommend reading it. It made some claims about some parts of his brains being larger than normal, and others smaller, and that’s why Einstein was a genius or something. All of Harvey’s claims have since been debunked, and he even eventually lost his medical license entirely in 1988 after he failed a 3-day competency exam.

So what exactly went wrong with Harvey’s research? Hines, the author who debunked Harvey’s conclusions about Einstein’s brain claimed that confirmation bias was one of the main issues. Harvey knew the brain he was studying belonged to Einstein. He also knew that Einstein was a genius, so he started with the assumption that his brain was special, and when they found anything abnormal or new in Einstein’s brain, this confirmed the researcher's assumption about his brain being special.

Confirmation Bias is one of the (many) pitfalls of EVERY humans’ brain, including Einstein’s, Harvey’s, and I’m sorry to say it, but your brain suffers from it too. And the scary truth is that if you think you are immune* to confirmation bias, you are especially susceptible. It’s just how our brains work. Let me explain...

"Neuroscientists like to say that your day-to-day experience is a carefully controlled hallucination, constrained by the world and your body but ultimately constructed by your brain."

-Lisa Feldman Barrett

If you take the time to think about it, your brain is incredibly brilliant (and flawed). Your brain has never seen anything but the inside of your skull (hopefully), yet it conjures up everything you see. It has never touched anything but the juice it sits it, yet it conjures up everything you feel. This organ has never eaten a chocolate chip cookie, yet it conjures the taste and smell of a warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookie (you might even be salivating right now just thinking about that cookie. Your brain is conjuring up the taste of an imaginary cookie, even though your brain has never tasted anything). Not only does your brain tell you about real things, but it also tells you about fake cookies and makes you salivate as if they were real. In some ways, we aren’t much different than Pavlov’s dog.

As you are reading this blog post, your retinas take in billions of sense data about the different wavelengths of light bouncing off of this screen and into your eyeballs. Your brain interprets this sense data first into an image and then interprets the image of these black squiggles into words, and then turns those words into useful information. Your brain is constantly doing this same process of turning sense data into useful information, with everything you hear, taste, touch, and feel. Here is where it starts getting weird.

"Brains aren’t wired for accuracy. They’re wired to keep us alive."

-Lisa Feldman Barrett

Have you ever looked at something and thought you saw a monster and when you do a double-take, the monster turned out to actually just be a shirt hanging on your chair (like in the opening scene of Monster’s Inc.)? Or have you ever accidentally touched a hot pan and pulled your hand away so fast you didn’t get burned?

I lied to you before when I said that your brain is interpreting your sense data to conjure up images, sounds, or tastes. It isn’t interpreting these things, it is actually PREDICTING these things. When you look at something, some small amount of time is needed for the light waves to reflect off of the object and into your retinas, then for the data from your retina sensors to be interpreted by your brain to see a shirt hanging on the chair. But you’re brain is faster.

Before your brain is able to fully interpret all the sense data, it will try to predict what you will sense. Your brain will take in the information from your senses from a few moments ago — Maybe your brain will use the fact that it’s dark, you just watched a scary movie so your heart is already racing, and you just heard a creak of a floorboard. All this data will suggest to your brain that when you look at the shirt, it’s a monster. So before you “see” anything, your brain is telling you a monster is there. When the sense data actually makes it to your brain, your brain either confirms or counters its prediction. In this case, it will counter your it’s prediction and will update what you see to be just a shirt making a weird shadow, not a monster after all. Your brain will (hopefully) use this correction to predict more accurately in the future in a similar situation (Not too different from how Artificial Intelligence works). Some experts have a magical term for this process, they call it learning.

I hope you take a moment to fully digest this, before your sense data has been interpreted, your brain has already created your reality. Everything you experience, everything you see, hear, smell, and taste is created in your head before you experience it. Your reality is completely made up by your brain before it happens.

"It’s metabolically costly for a brain to deal with things that are hard to predict. No wonder people create so-called echo chambers, surrounding themselves with news and views that reinforce what they already believe — it reduces the metabolic cost and unpleasantness of learning something new."

-Lisa Feldman Barrett

Not only do brains predict experiences, but they also act based on these predictions. Think of when you accidentally touched a hot pan (don’t try this at home). You immediately pull your hand away without being aware of it, avoiding a painful burn. Your brain performed that action automatically before the feeling of the hot pan was sent to your brain. Your brain predicted you would get burned and jolted your hand back before you’re even aware of anything. It acted on a prediction before anything ever occurred. Fire, Ready, Aim.

Brains are there to keep you alive, which is why prediction is important. React too slowly when you touch a hot pan, and you will be burned. In a previous life — react too slowly to a ruffling bush, and a saber tooth tiger may jump out and eat you. Your brain does this reacting+ guessing combo so it can be fast. The more your brain can predict, the faster it can act, the more likely you are to survive. The more your brain predicts correctly, the less your brain has to exert energy to fix its prediction.

Your brain was literally built to have confirmation bias.

Brains are incredible organs. They create our realities — everything we see, taste, touch, and hear. Our brains even create social realities and abstract concepts which we can share with other brains (e.g. money, governments, etc.). Our brains have incredible power, but they are also incredibly flawed.

So all this to say, don’t trust everything you think or feel.


* I found it most surprising, that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to suffer from confirmation bias. When you are educated you are better at finding information that supports your current beliefs.

Complementary Resources on Brains:

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