A couple of years ago, I read a bizarre story about Albert Einstein’s brain: the pathologist who carried out the autopsy on Einstein (following his death in 1955), a man named Thomas Harvey, apparently stole the famous physicist’s brain. And his eyes. Convinced the story was most likely untrue, I decided to do a bit of digging around, a bit of research, to see if I could unearth any more information. It turned out the story was true. Not only that, but it turned out there were still pieces of Einstein’s brain all over the world (the whereabouts of his eyes, however, remain unknown!). Harvey claimed he took the brain because ‘to me it was obvious that the brain of this man should be studied. Here was the brain of a genius’.
Harvey dissected Einstein’s brain into over 200 pieces and, across the course of his entire life, would endeavour to unlock the secret of Einstein’s genius by studying the great man’s brain. But Harvey’s life-long obsession with Einstein’s brain would take its toll on both his professional and private lives. Up until the day he died, and with three failed marriages behind him, Harvey would remain quietly convinced that the source of Einstein’s brilliance lay in understanding the make-up of his brain. But, despite one or two minor findings, Harvey by-and-large struggled to demonstrate a concrete relationship between Einstein’s brilliance and the shape (and size, and construction, and so on) of his brain.
I read a few accounts of Harvey’s research and they were pretty damning about his methods and, more generally, his demeanour. But knowing little-to-nothing about how our brains work, I wasn’t ready just yet to dismiss Harvey as a weirdo or an odd-ball (as some have). I started reading a bunch of books about our brains. Very quickly, I came across another story that I couldn’t quite believe…
In 1953, a young American man named Henry underwent an experimental surgical procedure (the removal of a small piece of his brain) in a bid to alleviate the epileptic seizures that Henry had suffered since he was a boy. Although the operation was to some extent a success, it had one cataclysmic, unforeseen side-effect: Henry was left unable to form new memories; the operation had robbed Henry of his short-term memory. Henry spent the rest of his life living permanently in the present tense. He had a past, but no future.
Professor of behavioural neuroscience Suzanne Corkin spent over forty years working with and studying Henry. Corkin documents her time with Henry in her brilliant book ‘Permanent Present Tense’. Toward the end of the book, and with Henry’s health on the wane, Corkin says, ‘as Henry began to decline, I focussed on ensuring that we would be able to study his brain after he died’. After his death in 2008, Corkin and her team removed Henry’s brain and dissected it into over two thousand pieces. Henry’s brain is still being studied to this very day… When I read this, I couldn’t help but think of Harvey and his crusade to understand Einstein’s brain. Perhaps Harvey had been on to something after all? Perhaps he was simply ahead of time? Perhaps one of the best ways to understand why we behave the way we behave is indeed to study our brains…?
Despite being based on various true stories, Incognito is definitely a work of fiction. It is a play about the role our brains play in shaping who we are and how we behave. But it is also a play about the importance of memory and the grief of losing a loved one to memory loss. It is a play about how our brains fool us and, perhaps worse, how we fool ourselves into thinking we are on the right track, when in fact we’ve been careering off course for quite some time.
Nick Payne won the 2012 Evening Standard Award for Best Play for Constellations (Royal Court/West End) and was recently nominated for an Olivier Award for his hit play The Same Deep Water As Me (Donmar Warehouse).
Join Nick Payne; Gez Casey, Live Theatre’s Literary Manager; Daniel Collerton, NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist; and Professor Anya Hurlbert, Director of The Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University for a post show discussion about the play on Wednesday 30 April at 9.30pm. Book tickets here.