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Phineas Gage: A Hero with a Horrifying Origin

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

By: Lynne Kim

December 1, 2021
Updated 12:00 PM EST


[Photo Credit: Health News NPR]

A portrait of Phineas Gage.


The story of how exactly Phineas Gage became neuroscience’s most famous patient is an interesting one, but not many know the details of what exactly had happened to him. Gage is a famous brain-injury survivor who lived through an accident with a tamping iron. While he appears as a hero to scientists and researchers, his story is tragic.


Gage was a 25-year-old man working as a foreman of a crew cutting a railroad bed. He was using a tamping iron to pack explosive powder into a hole, but the power detonated when a metal rod created a spark nearby. The tamping iron shot upward, penetrated his left cheek, ripped into his brain, and exited through his skull. In this process, the tamping iron destroyed the brain’s left frontal lobe, which is located directly behind the forehead, and is the most common region of brain injury. The frontal lobes are considered our behavior and emotional control centers and the home to our personalities. Gage damaged his left and right prefrontal cortices, thus explaining why he experienced problems with emotional processing and rational decision-making.


The only physical effect from his accident was the blinding in his left eye and a few scars on his face. The tamping iron took his left eye out when shooting through his skull, as well as a portion of his prefrontal cortex. Gage lost his balance between intellectual faculties and animal propensities during his accident. Prior to the accident, many of his colleagues said that he had an even-tempered personality. May described him to be a hardworking and pleasant man, but after the accident, he became an aggressive alcoholic who couldn’t hold a job. He wasn’t able to stick to plans, uttered “the grossest profanity” and showed “little deference for his fellows”, according to his friends and the doctor who treated him. Gage passed away a few years after the accident after a series of seizures.


Gage allowed for revolutionary studies in the neuroscience field because researchers could now figure out how brain trauma and personality change were linked. They also found out a crucial fact that despite a portion of Gage’s brain having been pulled out by the tamping iron, he still survived. Scientists now understand that the prefrontal cortex has an immense effect on the way we act and is the majority of our characteristics. Due to the lack of a portion of his prefrontal cortex, Gage was no longer a pleasant man and became miserable to be around. He was “no longer Gage”.




References


[1] Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 12 Apr. 2021, https://www.verywellmind.com/phineas-gage-2795244.


[2] Hamilton, Jon. “Why Brain Scientists Are Still Obsessed with The Curious Case of Phineas Gage.” NPR, NPR, 21 May 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/05/21/528966102/why-brain-scientists-are-still-obsessed-with-the-curious-case-of-phineas-gage.


[3] Magazine, Smithsonian. “Phineas Gage: Neuroscience's Most Famous Patient.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Jan. 2010, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/phineas-gage-neurosciences-most-famous-patient-11390067/.


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