Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Strange, But True...

I read about Phineas Gage about 4-5 years ago, and recently re-encountered the story. It's a strange one.

If you're already feeling a little freaked out, you should be.

In 1848, Phineas Gage was working on the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in VT. At that time, holes drilled into rock were filled with dynamite, connected to a fuse, and then blocked and compacted with sand, using a tamping iron like the one pictured above.

It seems that Gage may have forgotten to put sand into the hole or the rod itself may have struck a rock and given off a spark: in either case, the ensuing explosion sent the tamping rod through Gage's left cheek and out the top of his head, like this:

The rod landed approximately 30 yards away.

The sketch pictured above was drawn in 1868, after Gage's death, by John Harlow, the doctor who attended Gage at the time of the accident. Miraculously (or horrifically), Gage seems to have either remained conscious or else regained consciousness within minutes of the accident: he walked to a cart and was driven to his boarding-house, where he was treated by Harlow.

Although he nearly died of infection twice, by January of 1849, Gage was alive and (reasonably) well.

If you want more gory details (and believe me, they are gory: I would have barfed and passed out if I had been anywhere in the state of Vermont that day), there is a detailed account of the case available on the science blog at Neurophilosophy.

It isn't for everyone.

What's interesting about the case is that it offered the first convincing evidence that personality is linked to the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Although Gage survived, he was never the same. (And, well, really, who would be?)

In particular, Gage's personality underwent a severe alteration. According to Harlow, Gage became "fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible" (see above: "The Incredible Case of Phineas Gage," Dec. 4, 2006, http://neurophilosophy.wordpress.com/).

What I find particularly sad is the fact that 1) Gage lost his job (his bosses found that he no longer worked well with others and this was in the days before workman's comp, obviously) and 2) he spent much of the rest of his life traveling around with that horrible tamping iron, trying to earn money by exhibiting his injury.

He lived for another 13 years, and died in 1860 of complications from a series of epileptic seizures.

And yet, in the end, without Gage's terrible accident, we might never have had such convincing evidence of what is known as "cerebral localization"--the idea that certain areas of the brain are responsible for specific aspects of cognition and personality.


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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."