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Phineas Gage
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Phineas Gage

Phineas P. Gage (1823 - May 21, 1860) was a railroad worker who suffered severe damage to parts of his frontal lobes during a work accident. He survived but had a markedly altered personality, providing some of the first clues that specific parts of the brain, particularly the frontal lobes, might be involved in specific psychological processes involved with emotion, personality and problem solving.

Table of contents
1 Gage's Injury
2 Significance for Brain Science
3 See also
4 Further Reading
5 External links

Gage's Injury

In September 1848, Phineas Gage was working outside the small town of Cavendish, Vermont on the construction of a railroad track where he was employed as a foreman. One of his duties was to set explosive charges in holes drilled into large pieces of rock so they could be broken up and moved. This involved filling the hole with gunpowder, adding a fuse, and then packing in sand with a large tamping iron. When Gage was momentarily distracted, the tamping iron sparked against the rock and ignited the gunpowder, causing it to be blown through Gage's head with such force that it landed almost thirty metres behind him.

Death mask and skull of Phineas Gage

The 4-foot-long tamping iron entered his skull below his left cheek bone and exited after passing through the front part of the frontal lobes (specifially, the ventromedial areas of the prefrontal cortex). Remarkably after such a dramatic accident, Gage was speaking within a few minutes and managed to sign off his time sheet and walk home, where he sat outside and waited for the doctor. After a seemingly complete recovery from such a serious injury, and due largely to the work of Dr. John Harlow, Gage was soon back at work.

However, whereas previously he had been hard-working, responsible, and popular with the men under his charge, his personality seemed to have been radically altered after his accident. Dr Harlow reported that:

"He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom)… capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned… Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew his as shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation."

Gage led a checkered life after his injury, and at one time was part of P. T. Barnum's travelling circus, showing his injury, and the tamping iron which caused it, to the fee-paying public.

Significance for Brain Science

Gage's case was among the first evidence that damage to the frontal lobes could alter aspects of personality and affect socially appropriate interaction. Before this time the frontal lobes were largely thought to have little role in behaviour.

Neurologist Antonio Damasio has written extensively on Gage, and various patients he has studied with similar brain injuries. In a theory he calls the 'somatic marker hypothesis', Damasio suggests a link between the frontal lobes, emotion and practical decision making. He sees Gage's case as crucial in the history of the brain sciences, arguing that Gage's story "was the historical beginnings of the study of the biological basis of behavior".

It is occasionally suggested that Gage's case inspired the development of frontal lobotomy, a now-obselete psychosurgical procedure that blunted emotional response and affected personality. However, historical analysis seems not to be able to support this claim and it seems that consideration of Gage's injury had little influence on the development of this practice

See also

Further Reading

External links