Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Holy Shit, Phineas Gage!

Phineas Gage and the Big-Ass Tamping Rod

Phineas Gage had an especially rough day at work. It was 1848 and he was a foreman on a railway construction project in Vermont. There was a big outcropping of rock in the way, so naturally Phineas decided to blow it to hell with blasting powder. It's possible that he neglected to add sand to his magic explosion powder, and as a result his day worsened significantly.

As he was packing the explosives into place with a tamping iron, the iron made a spark. If you've ever been around gunpowder and sparks, you can probably guess what the result was. It was an explosion. It drove the iron, with terrific force, back out of the hole and into Phineas Gage's face, where it created a brand new hole of its own.
Phineas Gage's Skull
It was a way less meticulously dug hole, too.

The effect of this (what surgical journals would later refer to as, I shit you not) abrupt and intrusive visitor was to literally destroy both his left eye and his left frontal lobe. Of his brain. The thing that tells the rest of your body what to do all the time. In most instances, this sort of injury is accompanied by almost instantaneous death. Not for Phineas Gage, though. He survived and even sat up on his own after a few minutes.

In fact, while the injury ultimately did lead to his death, it would take about another twelve years to get around to it. In that time, Phineas Gage became a marvel of the psychological and neurological science communities. When the tamping iron took out a chunk of his brain, it appeared to have taken most of his "how to not be an asshole" knowledge with it, so naturally Gage turned into kind of an asshole for a while.
Cat derailing a train
Like this but smaller and less feline.

Which was a huge deal. It seemed to confirm suspicions that our actions are, in a way, preordained by the contents of our brains. This played right into the hands of phrenologists, a large group of charlatans who managed to convince much of the scientific community that our personality types are dictated largely by where our heads are bumpiest. The fact that Gage had a dramatic swing in his behavior after part of his brain was destroyed was pretty compelling.
Phrenology Map
Part of the "White People are Just the Greatest" branch of pseudo-science

However, a recently discovered report seems to indicate that Phineas Gage got back to his old self by the time he died of a massive seizure in 1860. Either he re-learned the social conventions that had been literally blown out the top of his head, or there was a fundamental problem with the model of phrenology. Which there obviously was, since it's been thoroughly debunked anyway.

Maybe it was just an enormous amount of stress that had caused the change. I mean, he had suffered quite a bit of trauma. That much trauma is bound to cause some disorder in his life involving stress.


Holy shit.

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